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This article was prepared for the August 22, 2001 edition of U.S.

1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New York Review: `The Seagull’

Can a play seem like a burst of radiant sunshine? This

is my reaction even with the heavens threatening rain at any moment

over the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. In as much as Anton

Chekhov’s

"The Seagull" has an undeniably tragic end, the play literally

dazzles our uplifted senses with its sparkling dialogue, illuminating

insights and the sheer blinding force of its dramatic importance.

Forgive me but I think I also said that about "The Three

Sisters,"

"The Cherry Orchard," and "Uncle Vanya." But you see

Chekhov is Chekhov, now and forever. With that said, let me say that

meeting Chekhov halfway is better than not meeting Chekhov at all.

Even with a pronounced hole in its heart, the all-star production,

(the hottest free ticket in New York), under Mike Nichols direction,

is an event not to be missed.

And even with the failings of the actor in the role of Nina, the

play’s

central and most pivotal character there emerges a remarkable

confirmation

of how the genius of Chekhov allows some actors and directors of

imagination

and sensitivity to achieve on-stage miracles. It is at first

discouraging

and discomforting to see a technically unskilled and insecure actor

cast as Nina, one of the most demanding and challenging roles in the

Chekhov canon.

There is no point in trying to analyze whatever it is that the

otherwise

lovely-to-look-at Natalie Portman thinks she is doing as Nina.

Although

hers is a sincere effort, it is not easy to overlook the fact that

she has yet to learn many of the fundamentals about acting, speech,

movement, and more importantly what it means to have a credible and

informed life in a Chekhov play. Her limitations, almost immediately

apparent, eventually come a cropper in the her long "two years

later" monologue" when it becomes obvious that she is not capable

of casting the necessary luster on the play’s one really expanding

character. Whatever film and stage successes Portman has had, she

is not carried along by the tide of greatness that surrounds her.

The real question is what was Nichols thinking of in casting someone

so utterly unqualified to play the acting infatuated girl who finds

a career at the cost of her innocence and through the betrayal of

her lover.

Everything else is happily as it should be. The tormented characters

with their comical vanities, the eternal anguishing and languishing

of these of these consumed artistes, and the convoluted romances that

must embroil their daily existence are vividly brought to life by

some extraordinary actors. While I want to blame Nichols in part for

Portman’s shortcomings, I also want to give him credit for bringing

a spirited and cohesive style to a play that cries out for naturalism

and yet wallows deliriously in affectation.

It has taken two-time Academy Award-winner Meryl Streep more than

20 years to return to the New York stage. It was worth the wait. Her

grand sweeps and grander affectations stunningly embroider the

self-propelled

vanity that is the trademark of Irina Nicolayevna, a celebrated

actress

of the provincial theater. Known by her stage-name, Arkadina, she’s

the center of her universe both on and off stage. Streep navigates

through the insensitivity and humor of this character with a dazzling

interplay of passion and playfulness. That playfulness begins with

nothing less than an astonishingly executed cartwheel to showoff her

character’s youth and agility.

The pathetic and desperate household of second rate writers,

meandering

searching personalities and theatrical types who encourage each other

in the art of self destruction, at their summer retreat estate, are,

when fully realized, both morbid and funny. The play rests in the

arms of the actors who know this.

Impetuous youth has rarely been more heartrendingly

conveyed than it is by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is excellent as

Constantine, the young ill-fated condescended-to-writer. As the

stress-filled

crybaby sulking from literary impotence and a lack of attention from

Nina, the woman he loves. Hoffman takes a path to suicide that leaves

us both stunned and sorry for him.

Christopher Walken is brilliantly wry as Sorin, Arkadina’s

semi-invalid

brother. Walken, who can leave you both mortified by the treacherous

choices he takes as an actor ("James Joyce’s The Dead") as

well as mesmerized ("The Deer Hunter") and delighted

("Pennies

From Heaven") is, from the moment he enters, the one character

in the play guaranteed to win your complete affection.

Also moving through the action with attention-grabbing behavior and

a self-absorption so stylistically commanding that she takes control

of the play’s lyrical solemnity is recent Oscar winner (for

"Pollack")

Marsha Gay Harden, who brings a wonderfully dispassionate dimension

to the pathetic, alcoholic Masha. Larry Pine’s philosophical doctor

and Stephen Spinella’s wimpish schoolmaster also offer savory

bits-of-acting

that exactingly defines their temperaments and their unobtainable

objectives. John Goodman’s imposing presence as the blustery estate

manager is contrasted against the earthy warmth generated by Debra

Monk, as his wife. And Henry Gummer (Streep’s 22 year-old son) does

not go unnoticed as a servant.

Kevin Kline, in the role of the perplexed, moody Trigorin, Arkadina’s

lover and seducer of Nina, projects his character’s ambiguous feelings

while atthe same time making no bones about those ego-driven romantic

urges that send him scurrying between the older and younger woman.

Not matched romantically since "Sophie’s Choice," Kline and

Streep may just be having the lustiest and most entertaining embrace

to be seen on a New York stage at the moment.

Designer Bob Crowley’s sprawling country estate setting is enhanced

by rows of stately Maple trees that compliment the natural park

setting

that surrounds it. There is never a last word on the greatness of

"The Seagull," a universal drama that not only speaks out

passionately on the meaning of life but on the search for fulfillment

in it. Tom Stoppard’s eloquent translation allows Chekhov’s voice

to ring out. Four stars: Don’t miss.

— Simon Saltzman

The Seagull, New York Shakespeare Festival, Delacorte

Theater, Central Park (entrance at 81st Street and Central Park West),

New York City, 212-539-8750. Tickets are free and can be picked up

on performance days (two per person) for that evening at the Delacorte

Theater starting 1 p.m. Tickets are also distributed from 1 to 3 p.m.

at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. For more information

visit www.publictheater.org. Performances continue through Sunday,

August 26.

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Ticket Numbers

Unless otherwise noted, all Broadway and Off-Broadway

reservations

can be made through Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.

Other ticket outlets: Ticket Central, 212-279-4200; Ticketmaster,

800-755-4000 or 212-307-4100.

For current information on Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, music,

and dance call NYC/On Stage at 212-768-1818, a 24-hour performing

arts hotline operated by the Theater Development Fund. The TKTS

same-day,

half-price ticket booth at Times Square (Broadway & 47) is open daily,

3 p.m. to 8 p.m. for evening performances; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for

Wednesday

and Saturday matinees; and 11 a.m. to closing for Sunday matinees.

For the complete calendar of events in central New Jersey, go

to www.princetoninfo.com/us1evts.html

For the complete calendar of events in central New Jersey, go

to

www.princetoninfo.com/us1evts.html


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