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theatre review

Leonard, as played by the dynamic Tom McCamus, is a macho writer of the old Norman Mailer school: rumpled-sexy, pugnacious, provocative, but with the acid tongue of Mailer's rival, Gore Vidal. He's been hired to teach some bright young things who aspire to be the next Jonathan Franzen or Donna Tartt, or at the very least want to write a mass-market "drug menace book" that will earn them a New York magazine profile.

Poor coddled lambs. They have no idea of the ego-slaughtering that awaits them.

Seminar, Theresa Rebeck's funny, facile Broadway comedy, now at Toronto's Panasonic Theatre, trades on the hilarious horror that comes from watching a witty, brutally honest teacher systematically smash the hopes and dreams of privileged pupils who think they can make it in the writing racket. But Rebeck's own aspirations come up short. While her play pretends to give us a cynical take on the literary game, in the end it just reinforces all the old romantic clichés about writing and writers.

Leonard, a once-celebrated novelist turned war-zone journalist and rock-star editor, has agreed to read and critique the writing of four wannabe novelists for the princely fee of $5,000 each. There's feminist Kate (Andrea Houssin), a Bennington grad who has spent six years writing a story that's some kind of ironic homage to Jane Austen. There's preppie Douglas (Ryan James Miller), a literary player with all kinds of connections who, when we first meet him, is waxing rhapsodic about his latest stay at the fabled Yaddo artists' retreat. Then we have promiscuous Izzy (Grace Lynn Kung), who's nakedly ambitious and needs no excuse to get naked. And finally there's the dark horse, Martin (Nathan Howe), the sensitive kid who won't let Leonard read his manuscript.

Their five grand gets them a weekly seminar, held at Kate's father's posh apartment on New York's Upper West Side. Right from the get-go there's blood on the elegant grey walls. Leonard viciously dismisses Kate's story before he's even read past the first semicolon, leaving the depressed binge-eater to drown her sorrows in a bowl of cookie dough. To make matters worse, he cozies up to Izzy, blatantly praising her story's "Asian exoticism" (she's Asian-American) to get in her pants. At that point we share Kate's revulsion: Is this dude really a writing guru or just a sexist, racist pig?

Then again, all the men in the play are after Izzy, whose own dilemma is left unaddressed: How does a sexy young woman get taken seriously as a writer? But getting back to Leonard, he does prove his laser-keen insight in the cruellest and funniest scene of the play, where he slowly dismantles the smug Douglas with some of the most damning faint praiseany promising writer could hear. McCamus delivers Leonard's stinging sarcasm in tiny, exquisite drops, like a verbal Chinese water torture; Miller's petrified smile as he silently receives it is priceless.

On Broadway in 2011, Seminar was a star vehicle for Alan Rickman, whose Leonard had more of a sneering Martin Amis vibe. In this production, a joint effort by Mirvish and Winnipeg's Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (where it premiered last month), McCamus cuts a swaggering, Byronic figure. When his Leonard talks of exploits in Somalia and Rwanda, he revives that enticing image of the writer-as-adventurer. But predictably enough, this hard-living dispenser of hard truths has some closet skeletons of his own, which are too neatly disposed of.

Rebeck, a prolific playwright, novelist and television writer (most notably for NYPD Blue), obviously knows something about the craft, but her satire is more fashionable and formulaic than it is deep. She touches on the hot literary issues of the early 21st century – the "fake" memoir, plagiarism – and, like Douglas, she drops all the right names. But Leonard's withering critiques are really character assassinations, not credible analyses of his pupils' writing. And – oddly for a female writer – Rebeck is happy to perpetuate the antediluvian notion that great writing is a masculine pursuit. This may be Leonard's attitude, but she never contradicts it.

Still, the play offers a welcome showcase for McCamus – even if it doesn't allow him the creative leeway of his quirky, Freudian-flavoured King John at Stratford two seasons ago. And he gets solid backing from four fine young actors. My favourite is Houssin's underestimated Kate, who would find a kindred spirit in Girls' Hannah Horvath. The show is crisply directed by Stewart Arnott, with Gillian Gallow providing nicely detailed sets and perfect character-defining costumes.

I'd never send aspiring writers to a guy like Leonard, no matter how badly they may need their illusions shattered. But for aspiring thespians seeking a master class in acting, I'd highly recommend Tom McCamus.

Seminar continues to Dec. 6 at Toronto's Panasonic Theatre (