No one does mean like Alan Rickman. With a sneering smile and an evil twinkle in his eye, he can reduce anybody dumb enough to challenge him -- whether it’s Harry Potter or the four novice writers under his tutelage in “Seminar” -- with little more than a single word.
In the latter case, Theresa Rebeck’s latest poisoned shiv of a play -- that word more often than not is an obscenity.
Rickman, last seen on Broadway in an exquisitely moody revival of “Private Lives,” returns to play Leonard, a onetime author of great stature now reduced to editing manuscripts, traveling to dangerous parts of the world on magazine assignments and teaching private writing seminars to select students with a) talent and b) $5,000, not necessarily in that order.
Leonard urges his four latest charges not to hold back on their criticism of one another’s work. Politeness, he says, merely masks contempt and, anyway, “Writers in their natural state are about as civilized as feral cats.”
The motley group meets in Kate’s rent-controlled pre-war 9-room Upper West Side apartment with river views. (She foolishly admits that her family pays $800 per month for the vast, chicly appointed digs.) Kate (Lily Rabe) has been working on the same Jane Austen-obsessed short story for six years, making her an irresistible punching bag for Leonard, whose worldview is unblemished by anything so crass as a raised consciousness.
Kate’s quiet, intellectually snobbish high-school friend Martin (Hamish Linklater) is another easy target of Leonard’s malice, since he offers comments but no work of his own. Douglas (Jerry O’Connell) is a name-dropping, orange slacks-wearing climber who bloviates about “interiority” and “exteriority” and his latest story, which the New Yorker “asked to see.” Finally, there’s Izzy (Hettienne Park,) a different kind of climber, for whom sex is, as the Sondheim lyric goes, a “pleasurable means to a measurable end.”
Yes, you have seen this one before, the play/movie/novel about a debauched, embittered genius wreaking emotional havoc all around him until one talented voice breaks through the armor. Doubtless you’ll see it again. Rarely, however, will you see such toxic zingers delivered with more elan.
Rickman and this extraordinary quartet, paced with feverish enthusiasm by Sam Gold, bring sexiness, verve and artistry to a tried-and-true formula. They come very close to making it seem seem fresh. (Gerard)
At the Golden Theatre, 252 W. 54th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: ***
The wild card in Thomas Higgins’s breezy psychological thriller “Wild Animals You Should Know” is Matthew (Jay Armstrong Johnson), a toned suburban teenager who excels at everything except understanding himself.
In the opening scene of the MCC Theater production, the purported hetero alpha male gleefully strips to his underwear for the benefit, via Skype, of his gay Boy Scout buddy, Jacob (Gideon Glick).
Moments later, Matthew is the voyeur when, through his bedroom window, he observes their scoutmaster with another man.
That revelation sets up an eventful scouting outing. The boys’ disconnected dads bond in the woods over six-packs, what chubby Larry (Daniel Stewart Sherman) calls “nature’s nectar.” Elsewhere in the woods, Matthew taunts the scoutmaster (John Behlmann, immensely sympathetic) to disastrous effect.
With its allusions to gay sex, this 95-minute one-act won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But Higgins also offers some keen observations, highlighted in Trip Cullman’s fine production. The cast also includes the excellent Alice Ripley as Matthew’s mom and MCC co-founder Patrick Breen, who’s terrific as a henpecked father reasserting himself a little too late.
One quibble: The production announces every scene with portentous projected titles, an annoying trend I hope will disappear soon. (Boroff)
Through Dec. 11 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St. Information: +1-212-352-3101; http://www.mcctheater.org. Rating: ** 1/2
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Excellent ** Good * So-So (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic and Philip Boroff is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)
Jeremy Gerard in New York at email@example.com.
Philip Boroff in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.