Alan Rickman plays Leonard, the abrasive instructor of the course, which is being held in the spacious Upper West Side apartment of Kate (Lily Rabe), who is also the first of the students to undergo Leonard's rather devastating brand of criticism.
The other students in the private seminar include Martin (Hamish Linklater), a friend of Kate's since their high school days; Douglas (Jerry O'Connell), a pompous but well-connected up-and-coming writer; and Izzy (Hettienne Park), a free-spirited young woman who is quite willing to dispense sexual favors to get what she wants.
There's plenty of wit to be found in Rebeck's work, which is filled with amusing and often pointed dialogue that mixes satire with seemingly sincere observations on the craft of writing. However, the playwright also manipulates the turns in the plot in ways that feel inorganic -- particularly in the final scene, in which Rabe's character makes some choices that inexplicably counter the way Kate is presented in the rest of the play.
It's to Rabe's credit that she is able to make the scene work as well as it does. Throughout the play, the actress presents a layered depiction of a woman who is both outspoken and insecure -- as well as prone to dealing with depression through compulsive (and hilarious) eating binges.
Fans of the Harry Potter series of films are sure to notice the similarity between Rickman's role of Leonard, and the character of Severus Snape, which the actor played in those movies. Both are teachers with a seeming malevolent attitude towards students, but whose motivations are more complicated than initially appears. Yet, Rickman creates a distinctly different characterization here, and his riveting turn is particularly good in a speech he delivers during the final class session, which in lesser hands could easily come across as overwrought.
Linklater inhabits his character so fully that even small shifts in body posture and facial expression convey volumes about how Martin is feeling at any given moment -- including and maybe even especially when he is not the center of attention.
O'Connell quickly establishes all the reasons we should dislike Douglas in his first speech at the top of the play. And yet, he also makes us feel for the character once it's his turn to undergo a critique by Leonard. Park has the least developed role in the piece, but approaches the part with an air of self-confidence that makes it harder to dismiss Izzy as simply a self-serving nymphomaniac, which is kind of how the script paints her.
The play also runs into trouble in the depiction of the seminar itself, and particularly the way the characters (mostly Leonard) are able to make such decisive snap judgments about one another's writing. Certainly, it's understandable that Rebeck and director Sam Gold did not wish to take up stage time showing the characters reading, but basing their rather high stakes responses on a quick skim of one or two pages of any given writing sample is just one more thing that stretches the credulity of the production.