By Anton Chekhov
Directed by Viacheslav Dolgachev
Starring Dianne Wiest, Alan Cumming, Kelli Garner, Ryan O’Nan, Annette O’Toole, David Rasche, John Christopher Jones, Bill Christ, Greg Keller, Marjan Neshat
Performances February 20-April 13, 2008
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Chekhov’s The Seagull, a melancholy comedy about several lives intertwined and affected by romantic and artistic conflicts, needs a harmonious ensemble to work onstage. Although the nominal lead roles are middle-aged actress Irina Arkadina and her twentyish son Konstantin, around whom the others revolve, Chekhov’s genius lies in his ability to breathe life into all of the characters. He presents a broad spectrum of humanity in all its splendor and ordinariness, humor and heartache.
Irina’s current romance with best-selling author Trigorin has pushed Konstantin close to the edge; he already considers himself a failure as both an artist and a lover because of his latest, disastrous playwriting attempt and the flighty young actress Nina’s interest in Trigorin as opposed to him. Meanwhile, Doctor Dorn regularly visits to check on Sorin, Irina’s ailing brother; servants Ilya and Paulina periodically appear; and their daughter Masha, although in love with the uninterested Konstantin, decides to marry the adoring Semyon, for whom she has no feelings.
With tenderness and delicacy, Chekhov develops the complexity and absurdity of life through these flawed but fascinating characters. Even his symbolic seagull is never overbearing, because its use is natural and poetic at the same time. The play is a difficult balancing act for directors: Should one focus on the comedy, perhaps at the expense of the drama, or emphasize the work's tragic overtones at the risk of burying its humor? Mike Nichols’ celebrated 2001 staging in Central Park, with a starry cast that included Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Christopher Walken, Natalie Portman, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, took the comic route, while Trevor Nunn’s recent BAM production with Ian McKellen was more sober and restrained.
You’d think that, as an alumnus of the Moscow Art Theater -- the very place where Stanislavski presented his revelatory staging of the play in 1898, following its disastrous premiere two years earlier -- Viacheslav Dolgachev would have no trouble taking the pulse of Chekhov’s masterpiece. Instead, he has his actors play it close to farce. The long first act is very fast-paced, with several characters literally running around the three-quarter-thrust stage. Kelli Garner’s Nina is especially guilty of this; while it’s true that the character is an immature, inexperienced girl, her constant jumping into Constantin’s arms is a needless reminder of that aspect of her personality.
Even the set gets into the act, so to speak: The small, makeshift stage that Konstantin uses for his own play is unnecessarily moved around by the actor who plays Konstantin, Ryan O’Nan, at one point making a complete revolution. Otherwise, the gifted designer Santo Loquasto has done little with the limited resources available to him. Suzy Benzinger’s costumes are more appropriate, and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting reaches moments of breathtaking visual poetry, notably when a lone character is subtly spotlit without drawing undue attention.
Although the production calms down and breathes a bit in the second act, Dolgachev never shapes the actors into a unified ensemble. Annette O’Toole is an unduly hysterical Paulina, and Bill Christ hams it up as her husband Ilya, especially in the charming anecdotes that Chekhov gives the character. Marjan Neshat offers a routine portrayal of the lovelorn Masha, and Greg Keller is a dull Semyon.
The best work comes from David Rasche, who cuts a dashing figure as Doctor Dorn and speaks his lines with an awareness of Chekhov’s poetry (even in Paul Schmidt’s loquacious translation); and John Christopher Jones, who perfectly captures Sorin’s humorous, melancholy bearing.
Kelli Garner is the loveliest Nina I’ve yet seen, and though her acting is less pretty, at least her energy is an asset. As Konstantin, Ryan O’Nan sulks throughout the play. Alan Cumming has happily shed his usual campiness along with his Scottish accent, and he looks suitably Russian with his beard, yet he never achieves the pathos needed to be a true Trigorin.
As Irina, Dianne Wiest gives a curious performance. She starts off well in the opening scene, with a forceful stage presence; but then she becomes so subdued that, whenever she speaks loudly for emphasis or makes an egregiously actorish gesture, it seems startlingly out of place. More of the hilarious grandstanding that marked her Oscar-winning turn as a diva actress in Bullets over Broadway would have served her in good stead here.
Director Dolgachev commits one final, fatal error at the very end of the play when he lays on the avian symbolism with a trowel, courtesy of a stuffed bird and blatant sound effects. Despite some good moments, this Seagull never takes flight.