Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Never Takes Flight

The Seagull
Written by Anton Chekhov, new version by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Ian Rickson
Starring Kristin Scott-Thomas, Peter Sarsgaard, Mackenzie Crook, Art Malik, Carey Mulligan, Pearce Quigley, Peter Wight, Zoe Kazan, Ann Dowd, Julian Gamble, Christopher Patrick Nolan, Mary Rose, Mark L. Montgomery

Performances from September 16 to December 21, 2008

Walter Kerr Theatre
219 West 48th Street

Crook and Scott-Thomas in The Seagull (photo:Joan Marcus)
Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull doesn’t merely waver between comedy and tragedy, it weaves both together until it’s irrelevant whether one calls it a comedy with tragic overtones or a tragedy with comic overtones. Either way, it’s a masterpiece because Chekhov illuminates the extremes of human behavior by exploring the cracked but not entirely shattered relationships among the famous actress Arkadina; her experimental playwright son Constantin; her younger lover, the famous writer Trigorin; her ailing, retired brother, Gorin; a homely servant girl, Masha; the lovely aspiring actress, Nina; and several others on Sorin’s country estate over the space of two years.

Needless to say, The Seagull is difficult to convincingly stage, since Chekhov’s balancing of comedy and tragedy is so droll and delicate. Three previous New York stagings in the past several years failed to address that balance: Mike Nichols’ 2001 Central Park production pushed the comedy to center stage, last fall’s Royal Shakespeare Company production was too dark, and last winter’s Classic Stage Company staging missed both the comic and tragic aspects. Now there’s the acclaimed production from London’s Royal Court, with Kristen Scott Thomas as Arkadina, and its mediocrity is the fault of director Ian Rickson.

For starters, Rickson stages The Seagull thinking it’s The Cherry Orchard, a Chekhov classic about another familial estate; Hildegard Bechtler’s sets display a dilapidated mansion crumbling inside and out and a garden inhabited only by dead trees (in the middle of summer?) and tree stumps. Decay is onstage everywhere, yet there’s nothing in the play stating that the estate is physically disintegrating–Gorin complains about money, but his farm is still being worked on by several servants, suggesting economic well-being, if not affluence.

Most damagingly, Rickson never brings the all-important relationships into a harmonious whole. Perhaps the London production was more of a piece–not all of those actors crossed the ocean, and the Americans replacing them are mostly undistinguished. For example, the gifted young actress Zoe Kazan plays Masha–a pathetic young woman unable to find love or any meaning in life–so broadly and simplistically that she never earns sympathy. Likewise Peter Sarsgaard’s Trigorin seems less a famous writer than a bumbling oaf, with a strangely hit-or-miss British accent. Although he’s always a dependable actor onscreen, here Sarsgaard never grasps the essence of this deeply Russian character.

The British actors fare somewhat better, although Mackenzie Crook’s Constantin is so petulant and whiny that it’s understandable that both his mother and Nina ignore his entreaties. As Sorin, Peter Wight is a mite too jolly, yet he nails the melancholic tone of his dialogue. Carey Mulligan’s finely-etched Nina touchingly wavers between Constantin and Trigorin with a very real sweetness that stops short of maudlin.

Lastly, there’s Kristin Scott-Thomas, who brings a formidable stage presence and precise diction to Arkadina, two necessary qualities of this fading stage star. Yet, as directed by Rickson, Scott-Thomas’s performance is less than the sum of its parts, with her big “actressy” moments grotesquely overdone.

Playwright Christopher Hampton’s “new version” of the play has its faults but preserves the salient wit and lilting language. Ultimately, however, by missing the essential core of these relationships–which should move us to tears at the end–Rickson’s staging of The Seagull is a lamentable disappointment.

originally posted on timessquare.com

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