The Seagull @ Walter Kerr Theater, New York

cast list
Mackenzie Crook
Christopher Patrick Nolan
Zoe Kazan
Pearce Quigley
Peter Wight
Carey Mulligan
Ann Dowd
Art Malik
Julian Gamble
Kristin Scott Thomas
Peter Sarsgaard
Mary Rose
Mark L. Montgomery

directed by
Ian Rickson
Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull is first and foremost a play about unhappy people. Set on a Russian lakeside estate in the late nineteenth century, each of the tortured characters is – fittingly – flitting through life like a stunted gull on the wing from some private hurt or another.

This production, a transfer from the Royal Court Theatre in London, where it ran in early 2007 with a slightly different cast, manages to capture Chekhov’s moody, malicious tone brilliantly, in part thanks to Christopher Hampton’s crisp new translation. As resurrected here on Broadway, it’s vigorously affecting, with a winning star turn from Olivier-winner Kristin Scott Thomas.

The story begins as follows. Konstantin, an unknown young writer who has just written a play, seeks to impress his staid actress-cum-mother Arkadina with “new forms” of dramatic writing. In doing so, he enlists the help of Nina, a young local girl with whom he’s fallen in love. She agrees to enact his one-woman experimental futuristic play – and succeeds – until the affair is halted mid-performance by Arkadina’s flippancy.

Both Nina and Konstantin are in awe of one audience member in particular, Arkadina’s new lover Trigorin, a writer whose fame and talent confounds both the young actress and the burgeoning playwright. Meanwhile, plain girl Masha is in love with Konstantin, and Arkadina’s older brother Sorin is, humorously, in love with Nina. As time passes, the various loves on display permutate and disfigure, leaving the characters irrevocably changed. It’s a credit to this production that its cast is mostly up to the challenge of Chekhov’s tragicomic exercise.

Kristin Scott Thomas as Arkadina is luminous, making her Broadway debut here after a string of recent European successes. Portraying the fading actress, she struts and poses across the stage, always wary of the commanding role she plays on the estate. Her beauty has remained, but even more so has her bloated sense of self-confidence (“I could play a girl of fifteen!” she remarks). Mackenzie Crook is her perfect foil as her tousled, tortured son Konstantin, his beady eyes full of self-doubt.

The real surprise here, however, are the young women in the cast. Carey Mulligan makes an impressive stateside debut as wide-eyed actress Nina. Her transformation from starstruck girl to world-weary woman is striking and superbly executed. Similarly Zoe Kazan as Masha, so full of unrequited love for Konstantin, wears her hurt as proudly as she wears her oft-mentioned stark black costumes. Her performance is full of pathos and regret, but also unexpected humor, and is certainly worthy of note.

The one weak link here is Peter Sarsgaard’s woefully effete Trigorin. In playing the self-important writer, squinty-faced Sarsgaard understands the arrogance of his character. But he seems unwisely to have decided to play Trigorin as a haughty schlub, and his restless movement and facial tics are distracting rather than character-building. He needs to be a towering figure, self-assured enough to intimidate the others in the play, but here he seems more a shrinking violet, barely able to muster a shout.

Wisely, director Ian Rickson has chosen to direct the play at a languid pace, allowing the characters and situations room to live and breathe. His is far more successful than the Trevor Nunn-directed Royal Shakespeare Company production, which toured to BAM last year, failing to captivate despite featuring Ian McKellen amongst its cast. While that production exceeded three hours of playing time (this one clocks in around two hours and fifty minutes), it managed to feel both overstuffed and rushed, hardly the electrically charged progression of sparks we get here.

Even within the relatively large Walter Kerr Theatre, Hildegard Bechtler’s simple, stark sets bring a real sense of closeness to the proceedings. Throughout the first half, tree stumps, benches, and a looming birch tree make up the bulk of the set. In the second half, the stage is enveloped by the interior of Sorin’s house, the walls covered in pasty, peeling wallpaper. Atmospheric lighting is by Peter Mumford, who knows just where to place the emphasis at any given point, and Stephen Warbeck’s elegantly atmospheric music adds to the gently balanced tension of it all.

By the play’s end, Konstantin – the unhappiest of all – has gone from budding young writer, full of form-smashing confidence, to self-perceived failure. It’s not only what characters say but what characters refuse to say, or can’t, that thrusts these lost souls toward their destinies. As Konstantin lights his latest story ablaze in despair, the silence is charged with a crackle that Chekhov could never fill with dialogue. This is the virtue of Rickson’s production; he respects not only the playwright’s words but also what he’s left unwritten.

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