Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” was given a wonderful interpretation at McCarter Theater last season through director Emily Mann’s vision. Called “A Seagull in the Hamptons,” it was lovely, perceptive and wittily contemporized. Even with minor but clever changes, the classic play never failed to dazzle us with its sparkling dialogue, illuminating insights, and the sheer blinding force of its dramatic importance. Another more traditional, if slightly off-kilter “Seagull” appeared Off-Broadway during the same season starring Diane Wiest. But what happens to this great play when the force is tempered and the dazzle is dulled, as exemplified in the production imported courtesy of the Royal Court Theatre and starring Kristin Scott Thomas? Thomas, who is making her Broadway debut in the role that won her the Olivier Award for Best Actress, is best known internationally for her laudable film performances (the French thriller “Tell No One,” “Gosford Park,” and “The English Patient”).
Evidently Thomas will have none of those grand sweeps and grander affectations that are generally considered to be obligatory for the actress who plays Irina Nicolayevna, a celebrated diva of the provincial theater (stage-name “Arkadina.”) She does credibly affect a compressed self-propelled vanity while still assuring us that she is the center of her universe both on and off stage. Thomas navigates through the insensitivity and humor of this character with a restrained interplay of passion and playfulness that at the very least is refreshingly original. Some may miss the overt displays that often define Arkadina, but others will take notice of the unremitting desperation, the willful intelligence and hubris that grips her in the face of the youthful Nina.
This, however, is an indication of the emphasis in this production under the direction of Ian Rickson, and boasts a crisp and clear adaptation by Christopher Hampton. Chekhov’s 1895 masterwork (conceding that it is but one of his many) is a solid confirmation of how this playwright’s genius allows some actors to achieve on-stage miracles. And I am now referring to Carey Mulligan, who illuminates every scene in which she appears, as Nina — one of the most demanding and challenging roles in the Chekhov canon. Many actresses have been known to have been stymied by the long “two years later” monologue in which Nina is ultimately seen as the only really expanding character. Winsome, blonde, and pretty, Mulligan often relies quite deliberately on an affectation of posture, the palms of her hands resting on her hips, to help define the acting infatuated girl who finds a career at the cost of her innocence and through the betrayal of her lover. But, this idiosyncrasy aside, it will be more than a few that will see this Nina and this “Seagull” as Mulligan’s triumph.
Hildegard Bechtler, who designed the notably drab settings that rather conventionally evoke the house and gardens of Sorin’s estate, is also credited with the similarly unremarkable costumes. 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.
Would that the tormented characters with their comical vanities, the eternal anguishing and languishing of these consumed artistes, and the convoluted romances that must embroil their daily existence had been rallied to give us a little more life. A rather frail and undernourished looking Mackenzie Crook is okay enough as the impetuous and neurotic Konstantine, the young, ill-fated, and condescended to writer. But there also appears to be in his performance less than meets the potential as this stress-filled cry baby sulks around because of his literary impotence and the lack of attention he gets from Nina, the woman he loves. Crook, however, makes us believe that Konstantine’s path to suicide is paved with his own deluded intentions. But aren’t we supposed to feel sorry for him?
I wish I could say that I believed all the blather that comes out of Peter Sarsgaard, in the role of the perplexed, moody Trigorin, Arkadina’s lover and seducer of Nina. While conceding that Sarsgaard, who seemed at the performance I saw to be playing some scenes with his eyes half shut, nevertheless cannily projects the bearded character’s ambiguous feelings. But he is not the least bit convincing as he spouts about those romantic urges that send him scurrying between the older and younger woman. Shouldn’t we get just an inkling of Trigorin’s presumably charismatic, ego-driven personality?
Peter Wight whistles (literally) pathetically on occasion but barely wins our affection as Sorin, Arkadina’s semi-invalid brother. Most winning of the whole lot of complainers is Zoe Kazan whose utterly disarming performance as the pathetic, alcoholic Masha is a blast of the most refreshing despair. Kazan, whose last appearance on Broadway was in “Come Back Little Sheba,” moves through the action with the kind of attention-grabbing, comically nuanced behavior that makes Masha the most amusing character to watch. She moves through the play with an air of twice-removed self-absorption that is so stylistically off-beat that it often upends the play’s lyrical solemnity. Should Masha really be predisposed to amuse?
Art Malik’s philosophical doctor and Pearce Quigley’s wimpy schoolmaster also offer savory bits-of-acting that exactingly define their temperaments and their unobtainable objectives. Julian Gamble’s imposing presence as the blustery estate manager is nicely contrasted against the earthy warmth generated by Ann Dowd, as his wife.
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. Rickson’s staging seems content enough to sacrifice much of the play’s exalted pretentiousness in an effort to stress abject naturalism. But should we be content enough to settle for that? **
“The Seagull,” through Sunday, December 21, Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street. $41 to $110; some center aisle orchestra seats, $135; premium orchestra seats, $252; $25 student rush). 212-239-6200.