Earlier this season, an acclaimed production of ChekhovÕs The Seagull was imported from the West End. It arrived with a lot of hoopla and hype and the rep of a revelationÑbut it emerged no more than a perfectly competent, solid production, nothing anywhere close to greatness.
That said, prepare for a shock.
The great Chekhov production weÕve all hungered for (yes, we have, all of us, even if we didnÕt know it, trust me) is on East 13th Street, at the cozy CSC Theatre.
YouÕre not quite sure what the hell youÕre in for when you enter the theatre and get a load of Suzy BenzigerÕs set, and as I describe it, bear in mind itÕs surrounded by audience on three sides. Cutting a diagonal swath across the whole of the playing space is the front framework of the estate houseÑno walls, no windows, just this merciless bisection via dark wood beams. This forces the front porch into a corner on the right, while various rooms of the house, including an upstairs study, are behind it. ItÕs akin to looking at a fully furnished ground plan. (My first thought was Max BiallystockÕs line in the musical of The Producers: ÒYou heard of theatre in the round? I invented theatre in the square: Nobody had a good seat!Ó) But in fact itÕs brilliant. For Vanya is a play about people who are living in countrified open spaces, yet trapped by circumstance and their own foibles into existences other than what they once imagined for themselves. And this odd and unique set that is at once open and constricted is the perfect psychological metaphor.
And then the characters begin to gather. You expect naturalistic acting when Austin Pendleton is director, thatÕs his strength and his stock-in-trade; but what you donÕt expect is a subtextual imprimatur, by which I mean a palpable comment by way of technique, but thatÕs precisely what he has delivered, and ingeniously so. For the people of this house touch, and often, and with intimate familiarity, and itÕs only rarely sexual; itÕs an aide to communication, to recreation; more, itÕs a manifestation of the proverbial quiet desperation, an attempt to cajole or contrive spiritual connection where none exists naturally. It brings out aspects of the characters in a visceral sense that in previous renderings we might only have taken on faith because the text told us they existed; and it gives those aspects a feeling of having a past, existing in three dimensions offstage as well as on. For example, thereÕs Yelena Andreevna (Maggie Gyllenhaal) a beautiful city woman at sea in the countryÑsheÕs the open obsession of Vanya (Denis OÕHare) who runs the estate on behalf of Serabryakov, the elderly professor she married (George Morfogen); and sheÕs the secret obsession of the county doctor, Astrov (Peter Saarsgaard). When she touches the professor, sheÕs trying, almost beyond her desires, to rekindle a flame long since extinguished; when she lets Vanya touch her, itÕs with long established boundaries and tired indulgence; when she and Astrov touch, you can actually see the battle she wages with herself to keep her long dormant desires suppressed. ThereÕs real, lived-in history behind it all. And the touch between Vanya and niece Sofya (Mamie Gummer) is perhaps the saddest of all, as itÕs the clasp of commiseration, recognition of each otherÕs isolation from romantic companionship.
Yet another fascinating stroke is what often accompanies expressions of frustration or dissolution or disgust or misery: ironic laughter. These are people who laugh at their own broken dreams because the only alternative would be to scream at them and never stop. These are people with both too much self-awareness (they understand their frustrations, regrets and contradictions) and too little (but never understand why they continually follow the same doomed paths). It not only highlights ChekhovÕs bleak humor, it makes the characters more engaging, and in a way even sadder, because in being more accessible, they utterly transcend any lingering remoteness of period or culture, and intimately touch upon the emotional yearnings of any sensibility.
Needless perhaps to sayÑbut IÕll say it anywayÑthe performances are worthy of the directoral conceit, sensitive and seductive. (If I have any criticism at al, it may be that Mr. Pendleton puts a little too much emphasis on touching and laughter, such that I became aware of them as motivic devices; and while I suspect I would have noticed themÑsuch notice is theoretically in a practiced criticÕs arsenal, after allÑI didnÕt want to be quite so aware, as the behavior was otherwise so natural.) Enhancing all of this is a clear, accurate yet subtly colloquial translation by Chekhov expert Carol Rocamora; and a very decent supporting cast: Cyrilla Bank (Marina), Louis Zorich (Telegin, aka ÒWafflesÓ), Delphi Harrington (Maria) and Andrew Garman (the Watchman).
IÕve been thinking seriously that this production should be exported to
I mean, Seagull, Schmee-gull. Let
see how Chekhov is really doneÉ