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A CurtainUp Review

The Seagull
By Les Gutman

I am writing a play which I probably will not finish until the end of November. I am writing it with considerable pleasure, though I sin frightfully against the conventions of the stage. It is a comedy with three [sic] female parts, six male, four acts, a landscape (view of the lake), lots of talk on literature, little action and tons of love. --Anton Chekhov, October 21, 1895

There are few playwrights who could write a play in which the second line is "I am in mourning for my life" and in which the suicide of its romantic male lead brings down the final curtain, and still call it "A Comedy in Four Acts." Few, also, would tease an audience by engraving one of the play's pivotal lines in a medallion, and have the source of the engraving be his own obscure short story. One such playwright is Anton Chekhov; another is Tom Stoppard.

Other than the fact that it has been a few years since New York audiences have seen any production of The Seagull,, Blue Light Theater Company's production is notable because it is the first here utilizing Tom Stoppard's new translation. Anyone blanching at the thought of ingenious Stoppardian word games in Chekhov's bucolic setting, however, may be surprised. It is, on the surface at least, a fine, faithful translation, but not a particularly adventurous one. Chekhov had already riddled the play, which could easily be called "Hamletian," with quotes and references from Hamlet. Stoppard joins the fun by adding a few more. (A play-within-the-play, as an example, is introduced by saying it will "lull us to sleep, perchance to dream.")

Stripped to its bare essentials, The Seagull is about nature and the human forces that try to change it, for the better or for the worse, and almost invariably without ultimate effect. Set on a rural estate in Chekhov's day, it is a remarkably modern play that treads in uncharted psychological minefields. Relying on the theater itself to express its theme, it pits the old against the new, and Chekhov's own naturalism ("let the things that happen onstage be just as...they are in life") against the [Stoppardian?] surrealism urged upon us by the troubled young playwright Konstantin (Greg Naughton).

Chekhov's platform is a love quadrangle. Konstantin loves Nina (Angie Phillips), a young would-be actress, who is enchanted with Trigorin (Mark Blum), a writer of the old school and the lover of Arkadina (Maria Tucci), an actress who is also Konstantin's mother. As Chekhov promised, we find "tons of love," but it is almost always unrequited love, false love, lost love or as the sad Masha (Francesca di Mauro) describes it, "love without hope."
If truth be told, not only has Chekhov provided very little action in The Seagull, he's also offered very little opinion. Which is not to say he has not provided an enormous amount to chew on.  It's a brilliant portrait, painted with studied detachment. Austin Pendleton has chosen, wisely, to follow Chekhov's lead and present the play in shades rather than in colors. Characters do not stand for anything, they simply exist. We are not cajoled to like or dislike, to respect or to pity; we are simply permitted to observe and, we think, understand.

The Seagull has several l"iterary men," to use Stoppard's word for them, none of whom are self-satisfied. One might be inclined to seek Chekhov's own voice in one of them, but it is not to be found. If anything, it has landed in Dorn (Joe Ponazecki), the doctor, played here as the detached voice of reason and calm.

If there is a major weakness in this production, it is its ambivalence as to whether to adopt a contemporary American or century-old European sensibility. Some well-acted character portrayals are so cut from American cloth that references to sending for the horses produce an anachronistic jolt. Pozanecki's Dorn, for instance, seems like one of those reassuring doctors pitching flu remedies on television; this Sorin (Bill Striglos), Arkadina's old, frail brother and the nominal host, seems to be channeling a cross between Pat Paulsen and Arte Johnson and the Nina here could be any impressionable young acting student fresh out of an NYU classroom.

In part, these apparent anachronisms reflect the surprising extent to which this play, though
celebrating its hundredth birthday, involves themes and issues -- for example, the idealization of "celebrities" -- that are exceptionally current. What's discombobulating is that the remaining cast maintains the demeanor of 19th Century Russia (although, thankfully, without making a laughable attempt at the accent).

Naughton successfully captures Konstantin's fragility and insecurity. His anxious performance is strong until his disappointing final scene with the mismatched Angie Phillips. The lack of apparent energy makes it difficult to imagine that he retains the wherewithal even for the suicide he wanders offstage to commit. Maria Tucci is fine as the dramatically conflicted but fundamentally artificial Arkadina as is Mark Blum illuminating the weak, unfulfilled Trigorin. The supporting cast is their equal, especially Francesca di Mauro as the play's mysterious suffering soul and Molly Regan as Polina, the complicated, unusual wife of the annoyingly comical caretaker, Shamraev (Tom Brennan).

 The attractive and lush sets adeptly accommodated the indoor and outdoor scenes, fluidly adding and subtracting elements as necessary. Particularly well-chosen costumes made no mistake about the play's period, notwithstanding any confusion from within.

by Anton Chekhov, translated by Tom Stoppard 
Directed by Austin Pendleton 
with Angie Phillips, Maria Tucci, Mark Blum, Greg Naughton, Alex Draper, Francesca di Mauro, Bill Striglos, Molly Regan, Joe Ponazecki, Tom Brennan and Rainard Rachele 
Set Design: Michael Schweikardt 
Costume Design: Laurie Churba 
Lighting Design: John Lasiter 
Sound Design: Jerry M. Yager 
TheatreFour, 424 West 55th Street (9/10 AV)(212) 333 - 4052 
Opened May 27, 1998 closes June 14. 
Reviewed by Les Gutman May 28, 1998

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