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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Chekhov's comic yet tragic group portrait of a Russian estate populated by people teetering between hope and despair, self-assurance and insecurity is eminently theatrical. Its juicy roles are magnets for actors— especially the always onstage actress Arkadina, her insecure idealistic son Konstantin and her literary catch of a lover, Trigorin. Directors are drawn to the endless interpretative possibilities in a play that looks at fame and pits the virtues of traditional art against riskier new art forms against a backdrop of misdirected infatuations (Schoolteacher Medvedenko loves the estate manager's daughter Masha; who loves Konstantin; who who loves Nina, the beautiful girl next door; who loves Trigorin) .
The Seagull's third New York production this year has been eagerly anticipated largely because it marks the Broadway debut of Kristin Scott Thomas as the flamboyant, self-absorbed Arkadina. Thomas, known in this country mostly through her film work (The English Pationt, Gosford Park), happily doesn't disappoint. She is marvelously grandiose as the actress who is a compulsive scene stealer even when at the family summer home and, worse still, at the expense of her son's fragile ego. And she exudes the energy of a woman determinedly battling advancing age (43 which, in Chekhov's day was probably more like today's 63). As her son loves her despite her vanity and stingy treatment of him, so she persuades us that she simply can't help herself.
However, it's my pleasure to report that this isn't one of those "see it for the star" revivals. Good as Thomas is, the reason to see this Seagull, is that thanks to Christopher Hampton's distinctly contemporary yet true to Chekhov's new text and Ian Rickson's astute and finely detailed direction, this is a splendidly integrated ensemble piece. That integration is particularly meaningful, since several American actors have joined the largely intact London cast.
The Londoners reprising their roles couldn't be better. MacKenzie Crook is the most soulful, touching Konstantin I've ever seen. Carey Mulligan is also a memorable Nina. In the tragic final scene that shows the eager for life and love young woman shot down from her lofty dreams — like the seagull shot down earlier in the play— Mulligan reveals the vein of iron determination beneath the porcelain doll loveliness that makes her declared determination to overcome her failures in love and career totally believable. She may be disillusioned enough to tell Konstantin that "life is ugly" but it's clear that she's determined to go on with it.
Standouts among the British support players are Art Malik as the de rigueur Chekhovian representative of playwright's other profession as a doctor and Peter Wight as Arkadina's prematurely old brother whose regrets about never marrying or being a writer, are refreshingly lacking in excessive bitterness and self pity.
That brings us to the American additions to the cast, Peter Sarsgaard as Trigorin and Zoe Kazan as Masha. Kazan, who's in just a few years, become a young actress to watch, becomes even more of a rising star as the unhappy Masha who defiantly sniffs tobacco, smokes and drinks too much. Her often infuriated outbursts get the most laughs, and at one point on the night I was there, even a show-stopping round of applause. It's easy to see her in modern dress, smoking a joint instead or sniffing coke.
Saarsgard, who like Ms. Thomas, is making his Broadway debut, is not quite as satisfying. Besides lacking the dashing appearance one might wish Trigorin to have he projects little of the passion he is supposed to feel for Nina. On the other hand his appeal to both the younger or older woman is really the cache of his celebrity status. Sarsgaard does rise to the demands of the role in the long monologue in which he talks about what he somewhat sarcastically calls his "fascinating, glittering life."
While Hildegard Bechtler's set at at first seems a bit too dark and spare during the first outdoors scene at the Sorin estate, with only stumps from the once blossoming trees as furniture. But actually that somewhat abstract opening effectively echoes the sense of emptiness and disconnectedness pervading the lives we watch, and it's amazing, and amazingly effective to see that set metamorphose into a more naturalistic 19th-century drawing room. Bechtler also distinguishes herself with the costumes, which show off the three leading actresses tiny waists to great advantage. Lighting, sound and bits of music (by Peter Mumford, Ian Dickinson and Stephen Warbeck respectively) round out the overall thumbs way up qualities of this superb production.
Here are links to other Seagulls reviewed at CurtainUp in 2008: The Seagull at Classic Stage
The Seagull in the Hamptons at McCarter Theater
Forr links to reviews of other Checkhov reviews rand more about the playwright, see our Chekhov Backgrounder.