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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Not exactly the stuff to support Chekhov's subtitle, A Comedy in Four Acts. Yet, as in all of Chekhov's great plays — and this is his first masterpiece— the frequent talk about boredom and despair is as often humorous as it is hopeless and tragic.
The joy of listening to what in Yiddish would be summed up as kvetching and observing the frustrated love affairs is that bored as they may be with their lives, these characters are never boring. Their restlessness and the things they yearn for and regret are timeless and seem to become more so with each viewing.
As importantly, The Seagull offers a wealth of acting opportunities. Even if you've seen it numerous times, a new revival is always exciting because it features new interpreters for Chekhov's fascinating characters. With Dianne Wiest as Madame Arkadina and Alan Cumming as Trigorin, it's no wonder that the production that just opened at The Classic Stage has become a hot downtown ticket.
Wiest is a fine enough actress to almost make you able to ignore the fact that she is older than the part calls for. Early on in the play Konstantin puts the blame for his mother's not loving him on his being twenty-five and thus a constant reminder that she's not young any more — "When I'm not around she's thirty-three; when I'm around she's forty-three" — Even at her most self-absorbed and grandiose, it would be a stretch for Wiest's Arkadina not to realize that, whether Konstantin was on scene or not, she couldn't claim to be thirty-three.
Thanks to costumer Suzy Benzinger and wig stylist Paul Huntley, the full figured Wiest looks as if she'd just stepped out of the page of a turn of the century women's magazine. In the scene when she bandages her son's head after his first failed attempt at suicide, she lives up to his acknowledgement that she can be a good nurse.
Wiest is appropriately self-absorbed and actressy throughout, especially when her Arkadina marshalls all her charms and powers of persuasion, to keep Trigorin from abandoning her. But if I had to pick the most interesting performance of this production, it would be Alan Cumming's Trigorin. He makes us see what ties him to the flamboyant older woman. He has the jaded air of a writer who has achieved success but now finds his greatest pleasure in fishing, but who is nevertheless compelled to keep writing in order to maintain his reputation. He manages to be quite funny when he pooh-poohs fame to the fame besotted Nina (Kelli Garner) even as he keeps pulling out his idea notebook. This Chekhovian Cumming is quite a variation from the usually more showy one.
With just a couple of exceptions, the actors who sit and wander around the mirrored floor of Santo Loquasto's elegantly abstract Sorin farm manage to capture the Chekhovian spirit. Loquasto's evocation of a nearby lake is underscored by Brian MacDevitt's lighting and Jorge Muelle's sound design.
David Rasche is supremely likeable as the country doctor, Yevgeny Sergeyevich Dorn (what would a play by the man who actually was a practicing physician, be without a doctor?). Naturally, it doesn't hurt that Dorn is probably the play's most sympathetic character and the one for whom Chekhov has written some of his best dialogue. Though more positive and less rueful than most gathered on Madame Arkadina's lakeside summer estate, the good doctor too lacks a certain life embracing vigor as evidenced by the way he shrugs off Pauline (a somewhat overly intense Annette O'Toole) who would obviously like to leave her coarse husband Ilya (the Sorin estate's manager played by Bill Christ) to live with him.
John Christopher Jones is an elderly, frail Sorin, but he's not too old to still despair at a life wasted at a dull job, without a wife or other female companionship. Marjan Neshat remains consistently in mourning for her life, and becomes animated only during a game of Russian style Lotto which seems to ease everyone's overarching discontent.
Unfortunately neither Kelli Garner or Ryan O'Nan are particularly strong as the two youngest and very crucial characters, Nina and Konstantin. Konstantin simply fails to project the Hamlet-like depth of his conflicted feelings for his mother, his animosity to Trigorin or his love for Nina; neither does he convey the intensity of his need to be recognized as someone with talent and to differentiate himself from the established attitudes towards ar .
Garner is a pretty enough Nina. It's hard to ruin the wonderfully up-to-the-minute interchange with Trigorin, in which the young wannabe actress is as breathlessly in awe of anyone creative and famous ("What a wonderful life! You don't know how much I envy you! Peple's destinies are so different. Some people just drag along unnoticed and boring—and they're all alike, and they're unhappy. Then there are others, like for instance you— you're one in a million! Your life turned out bright, interesting, full of meaning"). But the emotionally charged scene when Nina returns, a broken seagull so to speak, is done in by so-so acting and the lack of genuine chemistry between Garner and O'Nan.
Given the Russian director Viacheslav Dolgachev's background as the Artistic Director of the Moscow New Drama Theatre and a former associate at The Moscow Art Theatre (Chekhov's own theatrical home), this is a traditional production despite the abstract staging. The airy spareness of that staging definitely adds to the visual enjoyment of this Seagull. However, the curtained stage set up for Konstantine's disastrous play within the play makes for some awkward blocking at the beginning. Perhaps Dolgachev has that prop moved around from corner to corner of the stage as an accommodation to the theater's thrust seating, but the result is annoyingly distracting (which is echoed by the actors often seeming to be wandering aimlessly around the stage). Though there's a reference in the script to Konstantine's stage still being up in the final act (after two years have passed since its initial use), it would be outdoors and unseen in a more realistic indoor and outdoor set. Here it just looks as if the stagehands had forgotten to remove it at intermission. Dolgachev does leave us with a jaw dropping tableau that serves as an intriguingly ambiguous backdrop to Dr. Dorn's whispered concluding confidence to Trigorin.
For more about Anton Chekhov's life and work and links to his work that we've reviewed (including some half a dozen productions of The Seagull, see Curtainup's Chekhov Backgrounder.
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