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This article was prepared for the August 22, 2001 edition of U.S.
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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
"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
"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
central and most pivotal character there emerges a remarkable
of how the genius of Chekhov allows some actors and directors of
and sensitivity to achieve on-stage miracles. It is at first
and discomforting to see a technically unskilled and insecure actor
cast as Nina, one of the most demanding and challenging roles in the
There is no point in trying to analyze whatever it is that the
lovely-to-look-at Natalie Portman thinks she is doing as Nina.
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
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
vanity that is the trademark of Irina Nicolayevna, a celebrated
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
and Saturday matinees; and 11 a.m. to closing for Sunday matinees.
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