Gull Talk

At least Streep and her generation have the duality on which Chekhov is always playing: a sense of theatricality, of being on a stage, combined with a sense of naturalistic behavior, of people getting through an ordinary day in an accustomed place. The ambiguity is never more emphatic than in The Seagull, which is to some extent about the theater, numbering among its characters two actors (plus the stagestruck Shamrayev) and two playwrights. The play Konstantin puts on is Chekhov's ambiguous bow to the generation of "Symbolist" writers—Strindberg, Maeterlinck, Andreyev—whose methods he feared might supplant his, but whose youthful desire to remake literature wholesale greatly appealed to him. A little crude and lachrymose compared to the three masterpieces that would follow it, The Seagull is Chekhov's first giant step toward his own dramatic form, which carries on the standard well-made play—the kind that Konstantin attacks his mother for playing—while simultaneously dismantling and questioning it.

This puts a powerful weight on the figures of Konstantin and Nina, the failed writer and actress who will not make the future because the past has been too strong for them. One will commit suicide; the other will drudge, a little mentally unbalanced, in low-rank provincial companies. If this story doesn't have hope, and love, and a degree of youthful glamour in it, the dramatic tension of The Seagull drizzles away into gloom. (Tom Stoppard's script, juggling around the lines of Konstantin's play to make it sound even sillier than usual, is no help here.) The sweetness Natalie Portman projects, and her coltish physicality, almost mask her inability to convey through her lines the emotional battering Nina undergoes. But if her voice scarcely changes color from her first bubbly entrance to the miseries of Act IV, at least she looks and moves the part. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, her Konstantin, is all the more dismaying for being a more technically supple actor. To cast Hoffman as an ambitious 20-year-old (who makes a point of asserting his age) amounts to prejudging the character as a failure. Slovenly, stocky, pasty-faced, and weary-eyed, this Treplev looks older than Kline's Trigorin. Playing almost every moment as a neglected child's whine for attention, he gives his placidly earnest Nina only minimal notice. The long last scene in which they fail to connect is not the play's heart-rending peak but a flat line on its fever chart.

Things are better in the secondary roles, though Stephen Spinella seems to take his cue from Hoffman in focusing on Medvedenko's complaints instead of his adoration of Masha. Marcia Gay Harden, as Masha, plays hard on the line, but then Masha has very few secrets. John Goodman's bluff, slightly manic Shamrayev is in the right vein. The evening's most complete success is Debra Monk's Polina, which appears to be all Polina and no Debra Monk. And Larry Pine adapts his distinctive mellow style very effectively to the role of the doctor. His first-act scenes with the tearful Konstantin and Masha—both or either of whom may in fact be his children—are as close as the evening gets to the disturbing, complex, peaceful yet tension-fraught atmosphere that we call Chekhovian. Not that Pine deserves all the credit, since Bob Crowley's set supplies stands of birch and other trees as well, while the lake that has the characters so bewitched was generously provided by Olmstead and Vaux. Though it causes some awkwardness in the claustrophobic last act, there's a good deal to be said for staging The Seagull outdoors—if people could only be persuaded to watch the play instead of the stars.

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