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Where did the concept of “all-star” Chekhov productions begin? Probably with Katharine Cornell’s 1943 rendition of The Three Sisters, intended as a wartime tribute to our heroic allies against the Nazis. (Ruth Gordon stole the show, as a vividly vicious Natasha.) Chekhov wrote for the large acting companies European capitals maintained in the pre-electronic era, and he had the skill to pour his sense of life into his complex dramatic mechanisms in a way that gives every character a fully rounded existence. The cliché about there being “no small parts” holds truest for him: Any role in Chekhov can become luminous when the actor is creative enough.
The paradox is that an all-star cast starts with a worse handicap than any other troupe. Chekhov’s plays are pictures of a society in upheaval, miniature worlds that tilt wildly out of balance (usually around Act III) and never fully right themselves again. The playwright shows you how each person in these microcosms, from highest to lowest, is affected by the change, and he does it with clean, precise, minuscule points and brushstrokes. The technique is never far from that of his near contemporary Seurat; Chekhov is a dramatic pointillist. Stars, being by nature or acquired status figures who impose on the audience’s awareness, are the people least likely—and often least willing—to efface themselves into sequences of Chekhovian dots for the sake of the larger picture. And the results usually resemble Chekhov the way a screen saver of La Grande Jatte resembles the big canvas in Chicago’s Art Institute.
That said, I can certainly imagine blurrier and cruder screen savers than Mike Nichols’s all-star alfresco Seagull in Central Park. I wasn’t greatly moved at any point, but I enjoyed much of the work, and felt that Chekhov’s basic sense, if not his richness, came across. The production’s overall attitude is earnest, but not reverential: Nichols wisely lets scenes take their own sweet time, but without that sludgy feeling that makes you think the actors have tiptoed starry-eyed through rehearsals, whispering, “We’re doing Chekhov!” At the same time, his staging rarely stoops to the cheap laughs with which directors often clutter Chekhov’s works—sometimes because they get nervous in his emotional territory, sometimes under the misguided impression that, because he called the plays comedies, everyone onstage should behave like the Three Stooges. Nichols, mercifully, knows better: He plays the script’s one or two intentionally crude gags (like Polina’s “Give me those flowers”) for what they are, and goes calmly on to the next beat. He even catches some, though by no means all, of the bitter ironies which are Chekhov’s more usual way of undercutting his own romantic impulses.
The few tiny downward lurches for a cheap laugh happen, curiously enough, in what’s otherwise the most substantial performance: Meryl Streep’s Arkadina. Streep, whose comic sense has always contained a streak of parody, can’t resist hinting every so often that she thinks herself a little smarter than Arkadina, that she views Arkadina as the kind of skillful but vapid actress the character’s son says she is. When Arkadina has tantrums, especially in the first two acts, Streep makes them showbiz tantrums, with a self-conscious edge that suggests the woman regularly deploys big moments from her repertoire this way. This diminishes Arkadina, whose manipulations are the products of emotional confusion, not calculation. Streep—possibly from Nichols’s desire to keep the action clear for the audience—at moments makes her intentions so plain that Arkadina seems to have no feelings at all.
But those moments are few. For the most part, Streep lives in Arkadina, and lives there charmingly. In her beauty, her unforced assurance, and her frisky energy, she seems to have picked up exactly where the Streep of 20 years ago left off. The adorable smile is still adorable; the physical flair is still so much in evidence that it’s hardly a surprise when she turns a cartwheel; the ineffably musical voice now has one or two scrapes on it, but that’s the worst one can say. Come to think of it, she probably is smarter than Arkadina.
What Streep can’t outsmart is the situation that demands a big name in every role, at the cost of all appropriateness and common sense. Arkadina’s difficult relationship with her son is intensified by her bringing with her to the country a younger man with whom she is deeply in love, the writer Boris Alexeyich Trigorin. Kevin Kline is an elegant, dashing actor with whom it’s easy to imagine any woman being in love; imagining him as distinctly younger than Meryl Streep requires more effort, especially because—the star problem again—we’ve watched these artists grow up together, onstage and on-screen. It would be easier to believe them as Nina and Konstantin than as Arkadina and Trigorin. A further difficulty is the gap, which Kline hasn’t wholly bridged, between his suave style and the compulsive need to write which is Trigorin’s essence. Those who remember Christopher Walken’s riveting Public Theater Trigorin of 20 years ago—the only Trigorin who ever convinced me he was a writer—get additional discomfiture from watching Kline glide through the part while Walken, often only a few feet away, is giving a preposterously active, robust rendition of Arkadina’s older brother, Sorin, a retired bureaucrat and quasi-invalid, two things as which it is impossible to imagine Walken.
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.