March 22, 2008

The Misdirected Flight of "The Seagull"

The folks who go to see plays at the Classic Stage Company tend to see themselves as different from the average theatergoer. “You get a better class of people here,” the woman sitting in front of me smugly told her friend as they settled into their seats before the performance of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull that we all attended. I don’t know about that but what you do get is the pleasure of seeing classics from the theatrical canon— Chekhov, Shakespeare, the Greeks—performed by some of the very best actors in New York, who not only love acting but love doing it before a live audience.

My friend Ellie, the former actress, and I had a great time when we saw Michael Cumpsty in the CSC's production of Richard III last year, so we were both quite happy to go back to see Dianne Wiest and Alan Cumming in The Seagull. We were even more eager to see the production because its director is Viacheslav Dolgachev, who worked for 10 years as the leading director at the Moscow Art Theatre, the company co-founded by Constantin Stanislavski and that is so identified with Chekhov’s plays that its emblem is a seagull.

The Seagull centers around the family and friends of the successful middle-aged actress Irina Arkadina who gather at her ailing brother’s country home when she and her lover, an equally successful but somewhat younger writer named Trigorin, come for a visit. Most of the play takes place during their stay. Then, there is a coda that is set about five years later. The action starts with Arakadina’s grown son, Konstantin, putting on a play, starring the young neighbor he desperately loves named Nina. I don’t know if it was Paul Schmidt's overly Americanized translation or Dolgachev’s heavily Russianized direction (click here to read a New York Times article in which he talks about his style) but I started getting restless before Nina had finished her big play-within-a-play speech.

The actors are all quite good but they act as though they are in several different shows, with some (like David Rasche as the family doctor) performing in a straight ahead style, others (like Ryan O’Nan as Konstantin) seemingly going for a method approach and a couple (most notably Annette O’Toole as the housekeeper Paulina) performing as though Chekhov’s Russian clan had somehow stumbled onto the TV sitcom “Seinfeld.” Dolgachev not only fails to blend their styles but keeps them all racing around the stage, as though in a marathon. Which, I suppose in some aspects this production is since the first act runs for nearly two hours, breaking for intermission only when Arakadina’s visit has ended.

The moment the house lights came up, audience members, who had clearly expected a more conventionally paced evening, raced for the exit and the rest rooms like kindergartners let loose in the school yard after too long a morning inside. Some, including the critic for a major publication (and no, I won’t say which one) took their coats and never came back. But Ellie and I (and the smug ladies sitting in front of us) stuck it out.

“I liked parts of it,” Ellie insisted as we headed up Third Avenue from the CSC’s Union Square theater to a wine bar on 17th Street called The House. It was late, the place is small but we found a nice table in a corner, serviced by a cute and garrulous young waiter. “Just coming from seeing something?” he asked when he brought us our wine. We told him we were. When we told him what it was, he told us he was a director and writer himself and launched into his theory on how Chekhov should be played. As he talked, I found myself wishing I’d seen that show instead.

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