In Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” — and Emily Mann’s updated version of the play, “Seagull in the Hamptons,” which goes into previews at McCarter on Friday, May 2 — a famous actress with her lover/writer in tow visit the family estate. As the play begins, the actress’s son is preparing a performance of a play he has written to be performed by Nina, a budding local actress.
Actress Maria Tucci, who appears in the McCarter production should feel quite at home as the grand actress Madame Arkadina — whether in an estate in Russia in the late 1800s or Mann’s present-day setting, a seaside house in the Hamptons.
Tucci herself grew up in the rarified world of arts and letters. Her father was the novelist Nicollo Tucci who wrote in both Italian and English. When he died in 1999 at the age of 91, his New York Times obituary described him as “a colorful, romantic figure.” Three of his later books were edited by Robert Gottleib (Simon & Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf, The New Yorker magazine), who became Tucci’s husband. Married for more than 30 years, the couple has two children. Their daughter, Lizzie, is a filmmaker whose recent documentary aired on PBS. Their son, Nicky, is in his late 20s.
Mann offers a contemporary take on Chekhov’s story of artists searching for their art amid tangled relationships. At a discussion of the play held at the Princeton Public Library on April 17, Mann and Tucci talked about the development of this new adaptation. Mann said that she has been pondering “The Seagull” for years, beginning when she was a young actress who thought of herself as the ingenue Nina. From her current perspective, her focus has shifted to the relationship between the mother, Arkadina, and the son, a would-be playwright. As she continued to think about Chekhov’s play, Mann said that she realized, “I knew every single one of these people.”
In a telephone interview prior to a rehearsal Tucci says that Mann was visiting friends in Quogue in the Hamptons and began to write the play mentally as she walked the beach. Mann describes the experience saying, “I began to hear the voices and see the play in my head.”
The first act takes place on the beach, with the house in the distance; the second act, in the dinning room of the house looking out on the beach. Even with Mann’s change in time and place, Tucci says, “It’s amazing that it`s barely altered (from the original). I read it and thought, wow, one or two little things are readjusted, but I think this version is very close to what Chekhov intended.” Tucci says she had been apprehensive at first as she had recently seen a disastrous “updating” called “The Drowning Crow” at Manhattan Theatre Club. She is glad that in Mann’s new setting the actors are all spared the temptation to be “Russian.” “When I first played in a Chekhov play, I remember there was much melancholy as we all gathered around the samovar and paced back and forth. As you get closer and closer to the text, a lot of that gets dropped. However, many productions dwell on this. In addition, Emily’s adaptation is very funny without ever mocking the characters. No ‘wink wink.’ She has taken away the stuff that makes the actors feel we have to be funny. The result is that these people are very real. But we’re truly funny because we don’t know that we are funny.” To illustrate her point, Tucci refers to the character of Masha (in the Mann version she is called Millie) as “divinely funny because she is heartbreaking. She’s every young girl who’s totally in love, sobbing in her dorm room. The play remains funny until almost the end, but with no spoofing.”
As the play took shape, both Mann and Tucci thought a lot about mothers and sons. As women artists and mothers of sons, there are connections to be made. As Mann said at the library talk, “When he was growing up, I was a single mother in the theater with an interesting, complicated, and talented son.” He starts Brooklyn Law School this fall.
Tucci also has an exceptional son, Nicky, whose journey from boy to man is documented in the recent film, “Today’s Man” by his sister, Lizzie Gottlieb. Nick has Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disorder characterized by poor skills in social interactions, obsessions, odd speech patterns, and other peculiar mannerisms. As Lizzie explains in notes about her documentary, “I grew up struggling to understand a strange and brilliant and mysterious boy.” Tucci tells me, “There was no diagnosis or name for this until recently.”
Both mothers, Mann and Tucci, made concerted efforts to carve out time from their careers for their families. In contrast the mother in “The Seagull,” Arkadina, also a long-time leading lady, has marginalized her son in favor of her life in the theater. Tucci defends her, though, feeling that even though Arkadina failed her son, “She’s not a complete monster, but very self-involved, which is the point of her son’s profound depression. As in all of Chekhov’s plays, no one is all evil. No one is the villain.”
Tucci’s path to the theater opened up very early. Even as a little girl, she knew how to select her roles. Her best friend, Miranda, was “blond and beautiful” so little Maria cast her as Cinderella and announced that she herself would play all the other parts. She tagged along with Miranda to dance classes. “It was Miranda’s mother who said the magic words: ‘Darling, you don’t want to be a dancer. You want to be an actress.’ And the skies turned blue,” exalts Tucci. Her own family had quite a lot to do with her choices too. “My father was brilliant and divine-looking. My mother was a tragic martyr and very beautiful. My brother was a genius. The only thing I could do was act to make them happy, to make them laugh. But of course I ended up playing all those tragic parts.”
One summer, much to her parents’ dismay, Tucci, then 15, refused to be “shipped off” to Italy, where she had spent previous summers. She had found her first theater “home” with the burgeoning Shakespeare Festival Theater started by Joseph Papp. After her day in Catholic school, she would hide her uniform and race to the theater. Papp gave her small parts to play. She remembers her first entrance on the stage in the 1957 production of “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” the first of Papp’s free Shakespeare in the Park productions in Central Park. She made her entrance along with Jerry Stiller, who was playing Launce, the servant accompanied by his flea-bitten dog Crab. “I had five lines. It was kind of heaven.” She also understudied the actress playing the love-tossed Julia, Anne Meara.
From this first entrance, Tucci admits, “I never stopped working in the theater.” Tucci’s parents fought a difficult battle to get her to go to college. She turned down Wellesley. “My mother wept.” So she compromised by going to Barnard in New York City, but it was to last only half of the year. And here begins her considerable history with Princeton. “Daniel Selznick had started a summer theatre at the Murray Dodge Theatre in Princeton [Theatre Intime] and asked me to appear in ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author.’” That was her introduction to Princeton.
It was on-the-job training for her. As she describes it, “I learned a lot by being thrown into big parts.” She remembers playing in “The Trojan Women” at Circle in the Square Downtown. And playing Juliet on the huge Stratford, Connecticut, stage, where she also played the title role in “Antigone” and Jessica in “Merchant of Venice.”
After Tucci’s auspicious Broadway debut in the 1960s playing high-profile ingenues in two Tennesse Williams plays, “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More” and “The Rose Tatoo,” for which she received a Tony nomination, and a revival directed by Mike Nichols of “The Little Foxes,” as the daughter to Anne Bancroft’s Regina, she has worked consistently through each decade. However, after her daughter and son were born, she became very selective in the roles that she accepted.
Princeton continued to play an integral part in her life. She had met Michael Kahn, a former artistic director of McCarter, at Stratford, so when he asked her to come to the McCarter, she agreed only if she could bring her three-year-old daughter with her. “It all worked out amazingly and I fell in love with the McCarter. It felt cozy after my time on the huge Stratford stage.” She quickly became Kahn’s resident ingenue, appearing again in “Romeo and Juliet,” as well as in “Winter’s Tale,” “Major Barbara,” “Beyond the Horizon,” and “The Heiress.”
Another role for Tucci is that of grandmother. Her daughter Lizzie has twin boys. And so begins another generation of mother and sons.
A Seagull in the Hamptons, previews Friday through Thursday, May 2 through 9, opening night, Friday, May 9, the Berlind Theater at McCarter, 91 University Place. World premiere adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” written and directed by Emily Mann, features contemporary language in Hampton setting. Cast includes Jacqueline Antariamian, Laura Heisler, Brian Murray, Daniel Oreskes, and Maria Tucci. Through Sunday, June 8. $30 to $49. 609-258-2787.