With ticket lines of overnight urban campers and press coverage worthy of a White House sex scandal, the Public Theater’s all-star production of The Seagull would seem to have been the best thing to happen to theater since Joe Papp. The stage took a summer holiday from its peripheral status, basking in the kind of celebrity glory Hollywood has hogged for the last half-century. Far be it for me to deny our beleaguered theater an overdue bow, but the phenomenon of Mike Nichols’s Oscar-laden cast in Chekhov doesn’t signal any great shift in the cultural balance of power. The threatened film actors’ strike may have convinced serious West Coast thespians to wipe off a little theatrical rust back East (Don Cheadle had the Public rearrange the dates of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog to accommodate the planned dip in his moviemaking calendar). But the experience has only confirmed the obvious point that stage and film acting are separate disciplines, related certainly, but with their own hefty risks and demands.
Not everyone sees the distinction. Lee Strasberg, for example, formulated a theatrical training that was secretly built to exploit the intimacy of the close-up. That so many of his actors flourished in both realms would seem to validate The Method as an all-purpose approach. But the greatest Actors Studio talents from the 1950s—Kim Stanley, Geraldine Page, Eli Wallach—maintained their theatrical excellence not by Strasberg’s histrionic psychoanalysis, but by their ongoing commitment to working on plays before a live audience. For Stanley—whose death last week leaves so many unanswered questions about her brilliant yet curiously aborted career—film acting was the equivalent of “shooting pool in the dark.”
The art of movie acting is largely one of reaction, where less is more, and editing nearly everything. Stage acting, on the other hand, demands external action that’s reliably precise; even the subtlest shades of emotion require technique that can regularly reach the back of the house. No amount of camerawork can prepare an actor for the vertiginous onstage journey of a character, the constant exposure of the body, or the heat of the audience. Which isn’t to say that actors shouldn’t commute regularly between the theater and film. But neither should they expect to fudge a lack of experience with earnest (“Look how little I’m making!”) self-congratulation.
Meryl Streep’s 20-year absence from the stage was evident in a way that was characteristic of Nichols’s production as a whole. Her Arkadina was a fearlessly hammy creation, with a bold and broad physical attack that included a daring cartwheel. What her performance lacked, however, was the delicate nuance of feeling that Chekhov bestows on even his most hilarious Gorgons. Streep offered a radiantly egomaniacal Grande Dame, a diva game for anything, yet all her delicious shtick foreclosed a deeper authenticity.
The problem was endemic to Nichols’s cast, which risked caricature for the sake of comic sprightliness. Neither Philip Seymour Hoffman nor Natalie Portman—two young stars nobly determined to maintain a balance between serious theater and film—fared particularly well. The ever seismic Hoffman had trouble modulating Constantine’s oedipal fury (he was like a jackhammer in an orchestra of tinkling triangles), while Portman’s stagestruck Nina should have been advised in the final act to pursue a career in soap operas. Chalk up the inexperience, however, to the director, who returns to the theater only for the sake of “special events” (a Waiting for Godot with Robin Williams and Steve Martin, a coterie production of Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner). While Nichols’s Chekhovian dabbling provided a pleasant evening outdoors, imagine how much more memorable (and deservedly hyped) it would have been had he slowly built the production with a core ensemble instead of a pickup caravan of celebrities.
Don Cheadle may provide the star factor for Parks’s half-baked Topdog/Underdog, but Jeffrey Wright generates the lion’s share of artistry. Though this two-hander about a pair of card-hustling brothers named Booth and Lincoln is neither resonant as historical meditation nor credible as family drama, it has more than enough of Parks’s rhythmic language and sneaky humor to fuel two intrepid performers. Wright, who has consistently challenged himself since winning a Tony for his portrayal of Belize in Angels in America, totally transforms into the former con artist Lincoln. (And believe it or not, he was even more dazzling as the wannabe bad boy Booth in a Public Theater reading a few years ago.) Cheadle, whose theater credits have fallen with his rise in film, isn’t as physically comfortable onstage, though he matches his costar’s intensity and feeds off his genius.
With any luck, Cheadle won’t wait for another possible movie strike before doing another play. The best young stage talent—Wright, Liev Schreiber, Elizabeth Marvel, Joanna Adler, and Josh Hamilton, to name a few—challenge themselves not only with a steady diet of theatrical work but with the kinds of projects and directors they choose. (A lesson that Jared Harris and Lili Taylor, currently appearing in a clunky New Jersey Shakespeare Festival production of Hamlet, could benefit from.) The lure of independent film and the necessity of Hollywood bucks is obviously unavoidable. But theater hasn’t yet been pushed to the margins of their date books. These artists understand that both they and the art form they love depend not so much on buzz as on genuine commitment.