by Anton Chekhov
in a new version by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Ian Rickson
Starring Kristin Scott Thomas
A Production of the Royal Court Theatre

Reviewed by David Spencer

I missed King Lear as performed by Ian McKellan when it made its brief visit to the Brooklyn Academy of Music last season (I hope to catch up via the video), but I sure remember the reaction of one of my students. “I feel,” he said, “as if I never have to see King Lear again.” Now if his meaning isn’t quite clear in print, it was abundantly clear to those of us listening that he experienced what he’d seen as exhilarating and definitive.

                  After decades of constant theatergoing, literally countless thousands of evenings and matinees, you reach a certain age at which you know it’s going to tax your energies just that extra effort more to leave home to see yet another Twelfth Night, Misanthrope, Richard III, Glass Menagerie—or yes, even another Gypsy—because the likelihood of your being surprised anymore, of seeing a take, an interpretation or (God forbid, he said sarcastically) a straight-ahead rendering that awakens your enthusiasm, is slim. It’s not about being jaded or over-familiar so much as it’s about being disappointed—either because the new production can’t match the one or two iconic ones you saw when you were younger; or because you’ve never seen a particular play done brilliantly, only at best with competent professionalism.

                  There’s also, after a while, this question: What can you possibly do to a well-worked classic to make it pop anew? Other than have it acted brilliantly? Easier said than done is an understatement, to put it mildly.

                  So I lowered my skeptical eyebrow a bit when I read that the current Broadway incarnation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, imported from London in a shiny new English “version” by Christopher Hampton, directed by Ian Rickson, had been the biggest sellout hit the Royal Court Theatre had ever known. How, I wondered, could this be?

                  Having seen it, I don’t know for sure.

                  For while it’s far from a disappointment, it’s as far from a revelation.

                  I have a guess, though, and I’ll get to it

                  I’ll report, however, that the good news is, Hampton and Rickson have managed to—I suppose the verb is—“restore” much of the comedy Chekhov insists he was writing in his portrait of frustrated, dissolute, insensitive and/or misguided lives. They’ve keyed into how everybody being in love with the “wrong” person is almost a farce of manners by trying to make sure each character’s manner is painted with prominent enough behavioral tics and/or persona signatures to leave an imprint. Imagine, if you will, your favorite quirky TV heroes and heroines, blending character tics with natural persona to create iconic images. Such—though I doubt conceived of in those terms—seems to be the approach here. Thus—to name but a few—the grand and self-centered actress Arkadina (Kristin Scott Thomas), is extravagantly manipulative, and often given to explosions borne of both cunning and fear; thus her disenfranchised son Konstantin (Mackenzie Crook), an aspiring artist aching for her approval, is a moody, long-hairted bohemian; thus the young actress Nina (Carrie Mulligan) is all butterfly-like, bold and tentative simultaneously, in spurts; thus the depressive young Masha (Zoe Kazan), futilely in love with Konstantin, is given to a sullenness that is almost goth-like, and make-up and wardrobe fashion sense that might well have been inspired by Wednesday Addams.

                  This is all enough to potentially make a first-timer to The Seagull, or perhaps even someone who has simply never seen it done smartly, feel satisfied, and perhaps even better. The laughs give the interpretation its memorable moments and the extreme characterizations—given the cleverness with which they’re rendered here—give it the gravitas a world literature classic deserves.

                  Where the evening falls short is that not all the characterizations are quite so memorable, and the ones that aren’t seem perhaps even less good than they are through being diminished by contrast (most noticeably Peter Sarsgaard’s bland Trigorin).  This may have to do with the hybrid casting of Brits and Americans; since only some of the key players in this company were involved in the gestation of the Royal Court production, perhaps the collective gestalt that informs a breakthrough communal effort hasn’t been properly replicated. Or possibly—because after all, there’s nothing horribly wrong here—the production never touched that kind of greatness to begin with. One might also theorize that its mere very goodness was enough to mark it as a triumph, since Chekhov seems so rarely to be done even that well.

                  Whatever the case, this is not a Seagull to cause a veteran’s pulses to pound; but it may well be enough for those still soaking up the atmosphere to feel they’ve seen something of unusual distinction.

                  Which, I guess, is not so horrible, as the middle ground goes…

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