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Fiction Writing as S&M: Budding Authors Pay to be Insulted by their Sadistic Tutor in Seminar at Beck Center 

If you've ever murdered precious hours of your brief earthly existence reading short stories in The New Yorker, enduring those often endless and rambling exercises in plotless navel-gazing, you've probably wanted to see such writers tortured in cruel and inventive ways. Well, revenge is at hand in Seminar by Theresa Rebeck, now at Beck Center.

This snarky and amusing 95-minute play imagines a fiction-writing seminar attended by four bright, self-absorbed, young-ish scribblers who have paid $5K each to sit at the feet of the infamous Leonard, an older writer, editor and supposedly all-knowing guru of all things fictive. And even though the script sometimes strains credulity, the smooth and often witty direction of Donald Carrier delivers a thought-provoking look at the art of writing.

Most of the action takes place in the capacious, rent-controlled apartment bequeathed to Kate by her parents. She is joined there by Douglas (Brian Gale) — a pretentious twit, writing-colony snob, and the son of a well-known author. He is workshopping his latest short story, a piece in which the sainted editors at The New Yorker have evidenced interest.

Leonard, however, is having none of it, from either of them. He brutally dissects Kate's labored-over offering, describing its contents as, among other things, pieces of shit, until she is reduced to trembling rage. And after initially praising Douglas' work, Leonard proceeds to dismiss the young man as a whore who is leveraging his famous surname for monetary gain.

A third member of the seminar group is Izzy (Aily Roper), a lithe woman who gives Leonard a pseudo-academic boner. The last seminar groupie is Martin (Andrew Gombas), who sulks in a corner until Leonard forces him to share his words. And that is where the snappy put-downs morph into a slightly more serious look at the art of creating art.

The performance gets off to an overly intense start as the four nervous students careen vocally off each other at high volume and maximum intensity. But once Leonard enters, things gear down into a more sensible pace and manner. An excellent Scott Plate gives Leonard a slicing, dismissive air without turning this Simon-Cowell–for-eggheads into a cartoon.

Although Martin is ultimately set up to be the transformative character, the most interesting journey is navigated by Kate. Although initially loathing Leonard, she is drawn into his fevered domain where praise is doled out like Tea Party compliments for President Obama. As Kate, Lara Knox is both engaging and sensuous, revealing unexpected facets of her character.

Kate is also involved in a caper to trick Leonard, revolving around a manuscript by "a transvestite Cubano gang member," which she has secretly written herself. This echoes the true story of Laura Albert, who created the literary avatar JT LeRoy, a supposedly transsexual abused teen, and rode that hoax/pseudonym to momentary fame and fortune a few years ago.

When they're not writing, the cerebral participants jump into the sack at a rapid rate. This need for speed matches the way characters can read a sentence or two of a manuscript and instantly declare it garbage or genius. Necessary compression no doubt, but still it seems odd.

The flexible modernistic set designed by Cameron Caley Michalak shifts smoothly from scene to scene. However, the half-bare bookcases give the room the feel of a home staged by a real estate agent and not the well-thumbed ambiance of a writer's crib.

Playwright Rebeck crafts dialogue with plenty of snap. It's damn entertaining — until the cleverness begins to devour itself in a flood of self-examination and sentiment. Perhaps Rebeck should have run the last few pages by Leonard for one more line edit.

seminar Through June 29 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540, beckcenter.org.

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