Heartbreak House

"I can't say I'm not enjoying writing it," Chekhov wrote to his publisher in 1895 about The Seagull, "though I'm flagrantly disregarding the basic tenets of the stage. The comedy has three female roles, six male roles, four acts, a landscape (a view of a lake), much conversation about literature, little action, and five tons of love."

Constantine Treplev, the struggling avant-garde writer in The Seagull, flouts conventional dramaturgy perhaps even more than the playwright who created him. His over-the-top expressionistic play (incompletely presented in Chekhov's first act) is partly a rebellion against the stilted 19th-century melodrama that has turned his mother, Arkadina, into a full-throttle diva both onstage and off. But Constantine is also in a desperate race to find his own distinctive voice, particularly since Nina, the object of his desire, has become enthralled with his mother's lover, Trigorin, an eminent writer who fails to shatter the young actress's overly romantic notions about the creative life.

While remaining faithful to the essential spirit of The Seagull, Target Margin's adventurous new production, directed by David Herskovits, pays little homage to traditional Stanislavskian realism. In fact, nothing is naturalistic— from Greco and Voyce's humorously stylized costumes to Marsha Ginsberg's jerry-built set-on-wheels, everything but the work's emotional substance is presented with a theatrical wink.

Lovebirds Pemberton and Bennett in The Seagull
Jamey O'Quinn
Lovebirds Pemberton and Bennett in The Seagull

Details

The Seagull
By Anton Chekhov
Ohio Theater
66 Wooster Street
358-3657

Halfway Home
By Diane Bank
Theater at St. Clements
423 West 46th Street
279-4200

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The action begins with the backstage preparations for both Treplev's and Chekhov's plays— the direction purposely blurs the distinction. Herskovits's actors take a Brechtian approach in that they portray their characters rather than pretending to bethem. They lug scenery, announce scene changes, and, in the last act, even serve as an onstage audience for the final encounter between Constantine and Nina. This may seem like heresy, but Herskovits's approach actually serves the play's thematic through-line, which has to do with the peeling away of illusions surrounding love and work— the deepest sources of existential meaning for Chekhov's characters and, if you take Freud's word for it, the rest of us as well.

The nontraditional casting, which privileges Downtown ingenuity over seasoned training, heightens the production's playful theatricality. Nicole Halmos, for example, would normally be considered both too young and too zaftig for the part of Arkadina, yet her delicious performance captures not only the comic trappings of her character but the misgivings and regrets buried underneath.

Dressed in hip Soho finery, T. Ryder Smith plays Trigorin as an insecure writer whose keen powers of observation can't free him from his narcissistic bubble. Lenore Pemberton, an African American actress who wouldn't typically be cast in the role of Nina, is quite moving in her transformation from a naive girl to a grief- stricken woman who finds in her art not the glamour of her youthful dreams but a way to survive her cruel disillusionment. Beresford Bennett overdoes Treplev's juvenile side, but he exercises noble restraint at the end. The sound of the door locking behind him before the fatal gunshot is devastating.

Erika Warmbrunn's new translation contains some disorienting anachronisms, though her version matches the respectfully whimsical attitude of the production. It would be easy to quibble with some of Herskovits's more self- conscious directorial intrusions (such as the inexplicable blackouts and the stage manager's bewildering call of "Curtain!" in the middle of scenes), but his daring exuberance releases the play from the bog of realism into a realm of lyrical poetry.

Lacking the subtlety and depth of feeling of Chekhov's comedy, Diane Bank's Halfway Home barely rises to the level of a sitcom. While no director could rescue this hackneyed foray into domestic dysfunction, Steve Williford's production compounds the clichés by serving them up so baldly.

After suffering a nervous breakdown on the job, Susan (Welker White), an overwrought New York City tour guide, hijacks a taxicab and heads to Iowa to confront her family after an unexplained 10-year absence. Marge (Judy Frank), the mother of this deeply disturbed all-female household, looks sweet enough as she methodically scoops melon balls in anticipation of her prodigal child's return, but she has an uncanny knack for deflating her loved ones' self-esteem. Not that her grown children (each requiring a 12-step program of her own) are pillars of psychic strength, but it's clear why Susan left no forwarding address.

The reunion clarifies little except Bank's tendency to define characters by a single trait, which the actors highlight in neon. The range of human complexity hasn't been this reduced since Disney's Seven Dwarfs. Why the New Group— which has made its reputation showcasing fine ensemble acting— chose a script offering only wooden caricatures is a mystery. The best antidote to such enervating playgoing is more Chekhov. Better make it a double.

 
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