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Review: `The Sea Gull’
This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January 27, 1999.
All rights reserved.
What can you expect from unstable family members, bored
friends, and passionate neighbors who have gathered together for a
long, hot month in the country? We can expect a lot, especially when
the master manipulator is playwright Anton Chekhov. "The Sea Gull"
was a big flop when it was first produced in St. Petersburg in 1896.
Chekhov said at the time, "If I live 700 years, I’ll never give
a theater another play. When it comes to theater, I’m doomed to failure."
Chekhov did, of course, write more plays, and history has proven he
wasn’t a failure. Though an early work, "Sea Gull" has proved
a favorite of actors and audiences alike. Directed by Mark Nelson,
it plays at George Street through February 14.
Actresses with a flair for artfully ascribed flamboyance covet the
role of Arkadina, the play’s idolized middle-aged actress. In 1986,
Arkadina was awarded just the right self-propelled vanity by Olympia
Dukakis at Montclair’s Whole Theater. And in 1992 it was Carrie Nye
who carried the role off rather stylishly for the New Jersey Shakespeare
Now, at George Street, we may all feast upon the delightful presence
and performance of Pamela Payton-Wright as the famed actress. No stranger
to the variable temperaments of "The Sea Gull," Payton-Wright
was a notable Masha in the 1980 New York Shakespeare production and
lauded (although I did not see her) as Paulina in a 1984 production
at Williamstown Theater Festival.
Bravo to George Street Playhouse for venturing into Chekhov’s incomparable
world for the first time, and auspiciously opening the play in the
very week of Chekhov’s birth in 1860. While "The Sea Gull"
is studded with mercurial melancholy and has an undeniably tragic
ending, director Mark Nelson has punctuated the action with bursts
of the most radiant sunshine and brightly comical effects, all to
keep us smiling.
With many of the play’s exalted extravagances played
for their humorous results, Nelson’s staging doesn’t always allow
the full spectrum of Chekhov’s brilliance to shine through. The price,
however, even given the breezy unstuffy new translation by Paul Schmidt,
is to give Chekhov’s sparkling dialogue and dazzling dramatic twists
a decidedly new, certainly more flippant air than we are used to.
Bravely overstepping the fine line of naturalism that Chekhov intended
for the sake of a laugh and at the expense of a character’s soul,
Nelson, nevertheless, cannot be faulted for pandering to Chekhovian
Nelson’s energized staging couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m
still reeling from the mutilated version (I’m not necessarily putting
the blame on another new translation by Tom Stoppard) miserably acted
and directed by Austin Pendleton last May Off-Broadway at the Blue
Light Theater Company. This, just to prove Chekhov isn’t foolproof.
Another reminder: Chekhov also charged Stanislavsky with ruining his
I don’t think Chekhov would be unhappy with Nelson’s airy vision.
That is if you can except the fact that the inherent tragedies are
not to be taken too seriously, including a suicide. As this production
appears filled with characters more endowed with comical vanities
than with tormented souls, their anguishing and languishing could
not be more happily attended. Maybe that’s not how it should be. But,
it also seems to be in perfect harmony within Nelson’s hardly disrespectful
It is to Nelson’s credit that he has been able, even without forging
the company into a truly Chekhovian or Stanislavskian ensemble unit,
to create and sustain a spirited and cohesive style, arguably at the
expense of naturalism. Individually, the acting ranges from sincere
to stunning — and that’s not bad.
The foolishness, the condescending attitude, and the self-absorption
that is Arkadina is all there in Payton-Wright’s wry portrayal. As
enflamed with ripe passion as her character is, Payton-Wright is also
unrestrainedly girlish in her affair with the much younger Trigorin.
Her full-scale amorous attack of Trigorin, which lands them atop a
parlor table, is a comic gem.
In the role of the moody, second-rate writer Trigorin, David Chandler
will undoubtedly unveil more of the character’s ambiguous feelings
as the run progresses. There is touch of Molly Picon in the charming
performance of Alix Elias, as the warm and always appeasing steward’s
Impetuous youth is served if not passionately then personably by James
Waterston, as Constantine, the immature and suicidal writer, and by
Melinda Hamilton, as the flighty and foolish sea gull Nina, the drama-infatuated
girl with whom Constantine is blindly in love. Peter Maloney, as Sorin,
the regretful semi-invalid uncle, Julia Gibson’s pathetic alcoholic
Masha, Edmund Genest, as the philosophical doctor, and Todd Weeks,
as the wimpish schoolmaster, are all savory bits of acting.
The muted earthy colors in which costumer Michael Krass has dressed
the cast are especially winning, especially so on Payton-Wright whose
autumnal beauty, graceful movements, and delicately grand gestures
fulfill the demands of this insensitive but humorous woman of the
Set designer Karen TenEyck’s lakeside estate, the shimmering water,
a dock that ingeniously becomes part of the wicker interiors, are
enhanced by lighting designer Kirk Bookman’s atmospherics. There is
never to be a last word on the "The Sea gull," a universal
drama that not only speaks out passionately on the meaning of life
but on the search for fulfillment in it.
— Simon Saltzman
Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $24 to $32. Through February
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