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The Seagull

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Seagull
The Seagull.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

For this actress, does the curtain ever go down? Draped in elegant finery, caked with makeup glowing with the pearly sheen of dust from the flies, and trilling every word as if playing a flute, Irína Nikoláyevna Arkádina is every inch the performer. She never lets you forget, even in her most intimate moments, that nothing about her is as it appears to be; this magician of the theatre will never release you from her spell. It’s all the more marvelous, then, that as part of Dianne Wiest’s grand performance as Irína in the new Classic Stage Company production of The Seagull, she makes you understand just how this woman is held captive by the illusions she spins.

When she hurts her back while insisting, “I could play a girl of 15 with no trouble at all,” she barrels right on through, not deterred by the sad glint behind her eyes that momentarily acknowledges her faded glories. And in trying to prevent her current love, the novelist Trigórin (Alan Cumming), from stealing away with the (much) younger Nína (Kelli Garner), she’ll unsheathe every weapon in her classically trained arsenal: shouts, tears, humility, guilt. When he agrees to remain, Irína’s tongue-tracing relish of the words “He’s mine again” instantly transforms her from disgorged abandonee to the exiting star who just brought down an unforgiving house.

Watching these two models of urbane sophistication, Irína for the 19th century and Wiest for the 21st, meld into a single unflappable entity is the chief joy of this Anton Chekov revival. If it’s not the only one, it’s one of the few that encourages an honest, new way of appreciating this captivating play, of considering it (as Chekhov did) a comedy that needn’t be slapstick. With Wiest, Cumming, and a couple of their key castmates, Viacheslav Dolgachev has directed this Seagull with unflinching attention to introspective detail, well befitting the mirrored panels that comprise the floor of Santo Loquasto’s mannered manor-house set. With everyone else, this bleakly beautiful study of love and loss approaches college-level Kaufman and Hart.

The Seagull
Dianne Wiest and Alan Cumming.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Garner, for example, is so breathlessly eager in her early scenes that you wonder if her Nína decided to become an actress at the finish of the Moscow Marathon. Her dirty-blonde hair and unsullied features are clearly part of what’s drawn Irína’s son Konstantín (Ryan O’Nan) to her, but her more crucial attraction - her interpretive prowess on the stage - is nowhere to be found in Garner. Nína’s coming-out performance of Konstantín’s coming-out play is so hopeless that you can’t accept her as anything but one of the thousands of also-rans the theatre mass-produces.

Yet Nína, and thus the play as a whole, can attain full, wrenching power only if you see in her clumsily cosmic monologue “moments” of potential greatness. Something must catapult her above Konstantín and Trigórin, the two average talents competing for her extraordinary affections, so that it’s obvious Nína’s success isn’t just her getting lucky. It’s one of Chekov’s key arguments that luck is where (and in whom) you find it; death may take us all (as Irína’s older brother Sórin, affectingly played by John Christopher Jones, is on hand to prove), but making the most of life is our only responsibility until then.

O’Nan finds this in Konstantín, evincing a passionate devotion beneath the emerging artist’s brooding, angry exterior. Wiest does it through Irína’s extravagance. Cumming utilizes Trigórin’s doubting, reserved nature as his anger. He soaks up life around him by committing everything that happens around him in the tiny notebook he carries. He purloins thoughts, phrases, and feelings, both enslaved to and ashamed of his art, yet unwilling to submit to it publicly. But Cumming’s resolve cracks when pursuing (and being pursued by) Nína, revealing a man underneath as terrified of time as the aggressively ageless Irína, linking the two together more believably than many productions manage. He soars in the final act, which Dolgachev has otherwise made more portentously dreary than necessary, by becoming the man Irína needs and not the boy she already has.

The Seagull, though, must be more than the tangle of relationships at its center. Every character plays some role in straightening out convoluted notions of love and mortality, and the satellites here are in an unsteady orbit. David Rasche, who plays Sórin’s clear-headed doctor, is always a bystander, never an active contributor to the health of all the people around him who subsist on lies. Neither Másha (Marjan Neshat) nor the schoolteacher Medvedénko (Greg Keller) for whom she settles emit the “last chance” vibes of children forced into an unfriendly adulthood. Másha’s parents and Sórin’s caretakers, played by Bill Christ and Annette O’Toole, present their uncultured characters as abrasively broad punch lines in society’s joke book.

This production’s lasting entertainment comes from Wiest. The experienced innocence she grants Irína turns her ascent and her fall into a remarkable journey that forces a reexamination of the realities we create around us. So vicious is she when thrusting with accusations like “You’re the final page of my life story” or “I’m the one person who knows how to appreciate you” that you feel a part of her struggle. When she’s wounded in return (“I’ve never appeared in anything second-rate!”), her pain is very nearly yours.

It’s soon evident she’s rehearsed these scenes before. She’s rehearsed every scene before, to such line-perfect precision that she can no longer be trusted at all. Perhaps the only word to identify an actress who’s so adept at lying that fiction seems more real than truth is “brilliant.” If that’s an apt description of both Irína and Wiest, it’s too charitable to the rest of this handsome but muddied Seagull.


The Seagull
Through April 13
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Classic Stage Company