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Review: Aspiring Writers Meet Acerbic Teacher in ‘The Workshop’


Austin Pendleton, center right, as a washed-up playwright who teaches a course in dramatic writing in Torrey Townsend’s “The Workshop.”

Knud Adams

The characters of “The Workshop” are prone to delivering speeches with a profane, irreverent verve reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino. The dialogue is a succession of quick jabs and uppercuts, and references abound. Except that here they are not about B movies or the Royale with cheese, à la “Pulp Fiction,” but theater. This is the kind of show that lands jokes about Eugene O’Neill, David Mamet and The New York Times’s own Ben Brantley, and where people are so passionate about Tony Kushner that they physically fight over his artistic worth.

At the same time, “The Workshop” does not feel overly insidery. Yes, this Torrey Townsend Off Off Broadway play, brought by the new producing outfit softFocus, can milk a laugh from the current popularity of the avant-director Ivo van Hove. But as an incisive and insightful tale of ambition and envy, inspiration and mediocrity, the show should resonate with a wide swath of theatergoers.

The entire action takes place around a table, a few feet from the audience of about 40. That table is where the playwright Ward Stein (Austin Pendleton, himself a beloved director and acting teacher) leads a graduate seminar in dramatic writing attended by two women (Claire Siebers and Laura Lassy Townsend) and two men (Cesar J. Rosado and Tim Platt) in their mid-20s. The play’s general setup is similar to Theresa Rebeck’s Broadway show “Seminar.” As Mr. Townsend, who holds an M.F.A. in playwriting from Columbia University, paints them, these millennials waffle between passive-aggression and mere passivity, with little discernible passions and interests besides their navels.

The director Knud Adams craftily uses the tight confines to create and sustain tension, and the actors portraying the students are all excellent. But “The Workshop” isn’t a satire of creative-writing factories but a play about ideals, especially of the crushed kind. A visual clue sits in the middle of the bookshelf standing behind the table: a framed Obie Award from 1979, acknowledging Stein and his play “Deaf Snowlight.”

Throughout the evening, we’ve watched Stein alternate between patronizingly taking the students to task for their ignorance and spinning hilariously self-serving tales about his own accomplishments and famous friends. His monologue about fixing the end of “Glengarry Glen Ross” (“it took another artist — me! — to figure it out”) is a terrific comic set piece.

But the writing, bolstered by Mr. Pendleton’s poignant performance, transcends the chuckles as it depicts a man staring at the abyss of his failure. Stein keeps prattling on about “Deaf Snowlight,” which was his first play, a success that he never repeated. The name-dropping and humblebrags, the disdain for “commercial” theater are his way to cover up for his inability to come anywhere near the high-art accomplishments of his hero O’Neill. Stein cannot, so he teaches. Let us wish the promising Mr. Townsend a better outcome.

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