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Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline
If Chekhov were alive today to witness the hordes
camped out overnight in Central Park for free tickets to the New York Shakespeare
Festivals star-studded production of The Seagull, he would be flabbergasted.
After all, the play bombed when it was first produced in St. Petersburg, shortly after its
first publication in March, 1896. Sadly, despite a cast and crew of experienced and
talented artists, this production is not worth the wait.
The play explores unrequited love through characters who ultimately never achieve their hearts desire. The action opens on Sorins country estate in August. Near the lake at the edge of his property, his talented, but troubled, nephew Konstantin stages a play he has written. Konstantin's mother, Arkadina, a famous aging actress, has returned to the country for a visit and brought in tow her younger lover, Trigorin, a famous writer. In typical Oedipal fashion, Konstantin reveals his jealousy of Trigorin, not only for his success as a writer, but also for Arkadinas infatuation with him and his success.
Trigorin, meanwhile, falls for Konstantins love, Nina, a budding young actress and daughter of a wealthy landowner across the lake. She spurns Konstantin, follows Trigorin to Moscow and ruins her respectability by becoming his lover and bearing his child. Yet through her experiences, she discovers that endurance and faith are the most important elements of life. These help her continue acting. The emotionally fragile Konstantin, on the other hand, cannot bear his mothers and finally Ninas abandonment. The juxtaposition of the young couple, Nina and Konstantin, with the older couple, Arkadina and Trigorin, serves as the plays emotional core.
As Arkadina, Meryl Streep returns to the stage after a twenty-year absence and provides a rich, playful performance that recalls Margo Channing in All About Eve. Prancing, dancing, even cart-wheeling on stage, she creates the productions most compelling and complicated character, magnanimous one moment, yet, in the blink of an eye, demanding and petulant as a school child. She seduces both Trigorin and the audience with her charm, sensuality and confidence.
Kevin Kline, as Trigorin, gives the most natural performance. While he shies away from revealing Trigorins calculating nature, especially in his encounters with Nina, he is the most comfortable with his lines. They roll right off his tongue as if they were his, not Chekhovs. Natalie Portman titters about the stage doll-like and full of na´ve wonder. However, her portrait of Nina is too hollow to gain full sympathy.
As Konstantin, Philip Seymour Hoffman reveals the characters despair with passion and fury, yet they signify nothing. As he does not provide a balance to Konstantins brooding and depression, this characters complexity does not come to life. In supporting roles, Stephen Spinella as Medvedenko the schoolteacher, Marcia Gay Harden as Masha, John Goodman as Shamrayev, and Debra Monk as Polina are wasted. Their subplots serve as little more than window dressing to the couples.
Only Larry Pines performance as Dorn, the calm, perceptive doctor and voice of reason, rises above the others as a substantial anchor in the play. Christopher Walken provides comic relief as Sorin, the retired state councilor. Yet he hams it up too much for a sickly character supposedly near his deathbed. Walkens performance is better suited for Saturday Night Live than Chekhov.
Publicity for the play has touted that this production is a new version by Tom Stoppard. Upon inspecting Chekhovs text, his input appears to consist mostly of pushing the delete key in long passages and updating the jokes for a modern audience. The polish so appreciated in Shakespeare in Love is not apparent here. Mike Nichols direction is flat and lacking drama. Each actor appears to be working alone, rather than coming together into a cohesive ensemble. Tensions never build and an emotional payoff never arrives.
New York, August 19, 2001 - Susanna Horng