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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

Festival.

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

myth.

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

plays.

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

framework.

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

wife.

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

theater.

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

The Sea Gull, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $24 to $32. Through February

14.


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