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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Emily Mann's A Seagull in the Hamptons based on Chekhov

A Seagull in the Hamptons
David Andrew Macdonald, Maria Tucci and Morena Baccarin
It is fascinating to contemplate how faithfully Emily Mann's vibrant and accessible adaptation of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull adheres to the story and dialogue, characters and interrelationships of the original classic (even the ambiguities remain intact) while it simultaneously provides a wealth of scintillating dialogue and background detail in order which places it solidly in contemporary America. Mann calls her "freely adapted" play, A Seagull in the Hamptons. She has set it in the town of Quogue on the Eastern tip of Long Island, and substituted the contemporary New York theatre and culture scene (unseen, but pivotal) for that of late 19th century Moscow.

This melancholy, sometimes comic, tale of difficult, emotionally thwarted lives begins on a summer vacation night on the beach property of the mansion of Nicholas, a retired lawyer fallen on hard times, and his sister Maria, a successful, but insecurely aging actress. Her brooding, suicidal son Alex has set up a makeshift stage where he will present a difficult, experimental play that he has written. It is to be performed by Nina, an aspiring actress and neighbor whose parents disapprove of her friendship with Alex. Also present at the play are Philip, a successful writer who, while decidedly younger than Maria and about to hit on the innocent Nina, is Maria's paramour; Lorenzo, the mansion's arrogant and independent caretaker; his long suffering, gentle wife Paula; their daughter, Milly, who is hopelessly smitten with Alex; Ben, doctor and family friend, who has strong feelings for both Paula (requited) and her daughter, Milly (unrequited); and Harold, a colorless school teacher, who is seeking the hand of Milly.

Seagull is a dense play. Unconventional when first performed, it is an ensemble work in which the lives and emotions of each of its characters are entwined with one another. Any number of aspects of the human condition are manifest here, and no two people will focus on this play in the same way. Emily Mann has accomplished the difficult feat of capturing the humor, sharply definition of character, intricate pattern of relationships, and emotional resonance of Chekhov in her adaptation and direction. By updating The Seagull to our era, Emily Mann likely has made it more accessible to many who might otherwise be resistant to it. She draws us in with contemporary allusions. Notice how she does so while emphasizing the personal subtext of grievance as experimental playwright Alex pontificates about mainstream Broadway theatre:

... and because the producers are so concerned about not offending anybody while they pay their 100 fucking dollars, there is nothing controversial or worthwhile going on. Unless, of course it's from England ... anything in British accents makes Americans feel inferior and we say it's brilliant, even when it's just pretentious crap or little dramas with tiny morals posing as great art-or those fucking cheerful musicals! Oh, my G-d. Oh, I don't know. The whole New York theatre scene makes me sick ... Why do we have to have theater? ... (My mother) dedicates every working hour to something that just doesn't matter.

Not every update works perfectly. It seemed to me that the Hamptons (at least in season) are heavily populated with members of the New York elite arts community, and that it is so close to New York that Nicholas would not be isolated there. Perhaps A Seagull in New Hampshire would work better. The presence of the schoolteacher in the house feels forced. Just a line to the effect that Harold had helped with the chores in summer when he was a child and become a regular there, would be helpful.

Maria Tucci etches a many-sided Maria. Less impervious than Chekhov's Irina, Tucci's aging actress wears her insecurity on her sleeve. Nevertheless, Maria's lack of affection and concern for her son are laid out in powerful fashion by Tucci. Stark Sands as her mortally wounded son Alex strongly expresses his understanding of his mother and her terrible behavior toward him, making it clear that understanding what has injured you does not mean that you can overcome the effects of the injury. Morena Baccarin has an ethereal quality as aspiring actress Nina. Even when we are given to understand that Nina does not have the wherewithal to overcome her misfortunes, Baccarin makes us hope that, just maybe, she can.

Brian Murray nicely limns the beaten down humanity of Nicholas without softening the off-putting effect of his ineffectiveness. Larry Pine captures the ambiguity of the commitment shy Ben. David Andrew Macdonald as the hedonistic Philip is casual about the hurt that he causes, but animated in pursuit of his own benefit or pleasure. Daniel Oreskes (Lorenzo), Jacqueline Antaramian (his wife, Paula) and Laura Heisler (his daughter, Milly) display strong, distinctive personalities as does Matthew Maher as the morose but responsible school teacher Harold.

Eugene Lee has designed quite an impressive sand-filled beach set with a planked wooden retaining wall at the front, and a five foot high miniature mansion at the rear, stage left. His solid mansion interior set is all the more impressive for having to be placed atop the sand. Jennifer von Mayrhauser's costumes are appropriate and attractive.

Emily Mann's A Seagull in the Hamptons should prove popular in American regional theatres for a long time to come.

A Seagull in the Hamptons continues performances (Eves.: Wed,/Thurs./Sun. 7:30 p.m.; Fri./Sat. 8 p.m.; Mats.: Sat. 3 p.m./ Sun. 2 p.m. – No Eve. Perf. 6/8) through June 8, 2008 at the McCarter Theatre Center (Berlind Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540. Box Office: 609-258-2787; online: www.mccarter.org.

A Seagull in the Hamptons written and directed by Emily Mann; freely adapted from Chekhov's The Seagull
Cast
Maria, an actress………………………...Maria Tucci
Nicholas, her brother…………………..Brian Murray
Alex, her son…………………………….Stark Sands
Nina, neighbor's daughter…............Morena Baccarin
Philip, a writer…………...David Andrew Macdonald
Ben, a doctor……………………………...Larry Pine
Lorenzo, the caretaker……………….Daniel Oreskes
Paula, his wife…………….....Jacqueline Antaramian
Milly, their daughter…………………..Laura Heisler
Harold, a school teacher……………Matthew Maher


Photo: T. Charles Erickson


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- Bob Rendell



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