Theater Reviews

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Classic Stage Company, New York
Through April 13

Dianne Wiest and Alan Cumming deserve better. Although the two award-winning actors give attractive performances in Classic Stage Company's rendezvous with "The Seagull," the production that surrounds them is lugubrious and heavy-handed. This is the kind of show that gives Anton Chekhov a bad name.

Chekhov wrote "The Seagull" between 1894-96 and, as with most of his plays and stories, set it in the Russian countryside. The famous actress Irina Arkadina (Wiest) briefly returns to her run-down lakeside estate with her lover, the famous (and younger) writer Boris Trigorin (Cumming), and sends friends, servants and her neurotic, would-be-playwright of a son Konstantin (Ryan O'Nan) into a tailspin. The title refers both to a bird that Konstantin shoots in a moment of supreme anguish and, symbolically, to his friend, young actress Nina (Kelli Garner), who suffers an equally conventional fate.

Chekhov called his play a "comedy," a point that surprisingly seems to have escaped Russian director Viacheslav Dolgachev, a former head of the Moscow Art Theater and Chekhov scholar.

From the beginning, when lovelorn Masha (Marjan Neshat) announces that "I'm in mourning for my life" without a trace of irony, you know you're in trouble. Instead of lightly eliciting Chekhov's mixture of humor and pathos, Dolgachev gives us the kind of blatant behavior -- and acting -- that Chekhov despised.

Indeed, Konstantin seems psychotic rather than merely unhappy in O'Nan's self-indulgent performance, and he often runs around maniacally on Santo Loquasto's spare, surprisingly unimpressive set. The relationship between Konstantin and Irina suggests an overheated Hamlet and Gertrude, and the affair between Irina and Boris rather obviously evokes a mother and obedient son. At the end of a very long three hours, Dolgachev treats us to the image of the dead, preserved seagull resting on a table in a spotlight. In case we don't get the symbolism.

Wiest believably if unsubtly portrays the aging Irina: self-absorbed, sensuous and easily jealous. Cumming brings a more delicate touch, and his fine portrait of Boris as a weak man is the production's one revelation. He even makes Paul Schmidt's irritatingly laid-back translation sound good.

But anyone who saw Trevor Nunn's production for the Royal Shakespeare Company in the fall will know what this "Seagull" lacks. Nunn seamlessly merged comedy and seriousness, the characters' interplay was fun to watch, and he illuminated the play's subject: Chekhov's search for a new kind of theater.

At CSC, Chekhov's marvelous comedy becomes simply a dull, Freudian muddle.

THE SEAGULL
Classic Stage Company
Credits:
Playwright: Anton Chekhov
Translator: Paul Schmidt
Director: Viacheslav Dolgachev
Set designer: Santo Loquasto
Costume designer: Suzy Benzinger
Lighting designer: Brian MacDevitt
Sound designer: Jorge Muelle
Cast:
Irina Arkadina: Dianne Wiest
Boris Trigorin: Alan Cumming
Semyon Medvedenko: Greg Keller
Masha: Marjan Neshat
Pyotr Sorin: John Christopher Jones
Konstantin Treplev: Ryan O'Nan
Yakov: Ryan Homchick
Nina Zarechnaya: Kelli Garner
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