Can a play that has an undeniably tragic ending ever seem like a burst of glorious sunshine? Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, in its traditional Russian setting, literally dazzles our uplifted senses with its sparkling dialogue, illuminating insights and the sheer blinding force of its dramatic importance. So why would director (and playwright) Emily Mann feel the urge or need to improve on this? Her version is cleverly and conspicuously set in the Hamptons presumably in the 1990s. Set designer Eugene Lee has filled the sloped stage with glistening sand and some outdoor furniture. A miniature of an ocean-front summer home sits at the rear of the stage. Its grandeur is notable despite the forced perspective. Act II takes place within the home facing the beach area.
Mann’s contemporized and “free” adaptation is a steady, funny, and clear-minded stream of brittle chatter spoken amid the scattered melancholia. This is an exuberantly entertaining adaptation that speaks out passionately on the meaning of life, particularly in contemporary terms. References to Meryl Streep’s talent, Peter Brooks’ spare directorial vision, and artists as “degenerate liberals” punctuate this adaptation, but don’t compromise the integrity of one of the great universal tragic-comedies. Still focusing on the destructive machinations and dubious motives of Maria (previously Irina) the self-serving theatrical diva and mother from hell, Mann reconsiders the original Russian milieu (not a samovar in sight) and the familiar characters with a bittersweet wit.
The search for fulfillment remains open season for dramatists and Mann’s homage to Chekhov is often deliciously rewarding. Her laudable direction is embossed with comical vanities and the tormented characters seem to know just how to keep their prescribed anguishing and languishing in perfect harmony. It’s more fun than you think to watch these meandering, searching personalities and theatrical types encourage each other in the art of self destruction.
Mann’s direction beautifully emphasizes what is funny over what is morbid. Unlike many interpretations of Chekhov, we do not have to be patient with these self-absorbed characters and the dispiriting and convoluted romances that embroil their daily existence. The talk and action is brought vividly to life by a company that is well-meshed and ardently persuasive. Naturalism, Chekhov’s forte, is nicely personified in David Andrew Macdonald’s performance, as the self-absorbed second-rate writer Philip (formerly Trigorin). He makes it easy for us to see through despicably selfish designs with regard to Maria and Nina, the young woman who has so easily fallen under his spell.
In a role that is usually graced with more grandiose and girlish affectations, Maria Tucci as Maria can be commended for keeping these tendencies within the bounds of realism. By staying on the narrow trail of rarely self-contained vanity, Tucci artfully navigates through the insensitivity and humor as well as the superficial demands of this celebrated actress of the stage.
Stark Sands gives an endearingly textured performance as Alex, the seriously unhappy 19 year-old aspiring writer condescended to by his family. He heartbreakingly channels the tragic undercurrent of the play. A similarly fragile thread of tragedy rests with the conflicted vexations of Morena Baccarin, as the acting-infatuated Nina, the girl with whom Alex is so blindly in love. Baccarin is strikingly beautiful and dressed fetchingly in costume designer Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s perky summer frocks.
The always magnetic Brian Murray (great to see him back so soon after his role in the new Albee play “Me, Myself and I”) is as wry as ever (“I’m dressed to the nines with nowhere to go”) as Nicholas, Maria’s semi-invalid brother. I suspect that Murray’s performance is giving us more comical nuance than has ever been ascribed to this role. Brilliant. Another character with nowhere to go is the pathetic and openly alcoholic Milly (Laura Heisler), the caretakers’ daughter, whose life is not going to be improved by marrying the nerdish schoolteacher Harold (as played with dim-witted poignancy by Matthew Maher). Daniel Oreskes is a hoot as Lorenzo, the perpetually annoyed caretaker/cook who is blind to the fact that his wife Paula (Jacqueline Antaramian) pines with futility after Ben, the somewhat bemused doctor (as impressively defined by Larry Pine).
If Mann has splashed a bit more sunlight on Chekhov’s comically melancholy terrain than we are used to, it still adds up to genuinely rewarding evening of highly melodramatic theater, and one that the theatrically inventive Chekhov would conceivably approve.
For a time, Mann’s adaptation seems a bit like gilding the lily, but the play itself remains a classic gem: one that has withstood many conceits and personal signatures. Curiously, the Hamptons setting is appropriate but not a new idea. A previous adaptation by Jeff Cohen called “The Seagull: The Hamptons, 1990s” was presented by the Worth Theater Company in New York in 1997. Not having seen it, I have no comparisons to make.
But you see Chekhov is Chekhov, now and forever. With that said, let me say that meeting Chekhov either halfway or completely reconsidered with a virtually new text is probably better than not meeting Chekhov at all. Purists will undoubtedly say that The Seagull is so masterfully written that Mann should not have the temerity to dismiss it leaving only the bones of the plot and the still intact recognizable self-centeredness of its characters. It would be a presumption to assume that Chekhov’s play has been unconscionably dulled. Mann has artfully written a radiant new play inspired by a wonderful old one.
— Simon Saltzman
“A Seagull in the Hamptons,” through Sunday, June 8, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. 609-258-2787.