Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

The Seagull/Woodstock, NY

Theatre Review by James Wilson - February 28, 2023

Daniel Oreskes, Ato Essandoh, Parker Posey, Amy Stiller,
and Hari Nef

Photo by Monique Carboni
The most successful adaptations of classic works allow audiences to see familiar texts in a new light. For instance, black odyssey, which opened this week, affords a spirited journey through African American history using Homer's template. Fat Ham, which opens on Broadway later this season, reimagines Hamlet through the experiences of a Black queer man. In his adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull, Thomas Bradshaw brings his signature shock-for-the-sake-of-shock approach to playwriting but not much else. For The New Group's current production of The Seagull/Woodstock, NY, in the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, Bradshaw updates the play, places it a few hours up the Hudson River, and uses countless contemporary theatre references. The play's agenda, however, is unclear since it offers frustratingly little illumination on the desperate and broken souls that people Chekhov's original.

First, there ought to be a rule: If playwrights venture to modify The Seagull, they must use Chekhov's brilliant line, Masha's "I'm in mourning for my life," or come up with something just as or even wittier. In Bradshaw's version, Sasha (Hari Nef), as she is called here, responds to Mark's (Patrick Foley) question about her funereal appearance: "At least I don't buy my clothes at Walmart." Sigh.

Hewing closely to the original structure, the play begins with a group of family and friends descending upon a country estate, which is owned by retired lawyer and gay man, Samuel (David Cale). Irene (Parker Posey), a well-known Broadway actress, and her newest flame William (Ato Essandoh), a celebrated novelist, are the guests of honor. Additional attendees include the penny-pinching family friend Darren (Daniel Oreskes), who is the husband to the nagging Pauline (Amy Stiller).

The highlight of the visit is supposed to be a premiere performance written by Kevin (Nat Wolff), Irene's son, and featuring his beloved Nina (Aleyse Shannon), who lives nearby. The play is a deliberate denunciation of the artifice and bourgeoise sentiments of mainstream theatre, but in Bradshaw's version, the piece is a rambling screed about language considered racist, the unfortunate constraints on not being able "to rip a loud fart during class," and masturbation. Ugh.

During the play-within-the-play, Nina invites individuals to share their stories of masturbating that day. Another family friend, brain surgeon Dean (Bill Sage), describes his experience in the shower fantasizing about a woman he saw on the beach. His story is no match compared with William's, who describes watching cuckold porn that climaxes with a woman offering a treatise on the joys of anal sex. William is rewarded with a chance to peek behind the curtain concealing an onstage bathtub to watch Nina masturbate. Groan.

Whereas it is very clear that Chekhov was satirizing the symbolists (or "Decadents," Irina scoffs) in Constantine's play, it isn't clear what Bradshaw is up to except to parody himself. Additionally, the characters speak openly about sex and freely use derogatory and offensive epithets, but the genius of Chekhov was his ability to find the bittersweet humor as the repressed and deeply isolated characters muddle their way through their empty lives.

As Irene, Posey is terrific, and she impressively captures the character's haughtiness, penuriousness, and masked insecurities. For Irene, there is no difference between on and offstage. In Posey's interpretation, the character seems to be looking for the spotlight whenever she steps into a room. As a mother and self-absorbed woman, she is an endearing monster.

Unfortunately, under Scott Elliott's scattershot direction, none of the other performers makes as strong an impression. Elliott begins the show with the actors milling about on stage, stretching, and doing some breath exercises. For a play that is essentially about theatre, this is an appropriate way to start, for sure. Indeed, the Louis Malle and Andre Gregory film adaptation of Uncle Vanya, Vanya on 42nd Street, opens similarly. The genius of that conceit is the seemingly imperceptible transition as each rehearsing actor becomes a fully embodied character. In this Seagull, one has the sense that some of the actors are still warming up as the play stumbles to the inevitable concluding gunshot.

The production makes effective use of the Signature space with the audience on three sides. Derek McLane's scenic design playfully evokes a Russian country estate (without the samovar) while applying modern flourishes like lawn chairs, office furniture, and a folding card table. Cha See's lighting and Qween Jean's costumes helpfully establish the shifts in time and seasons.

Regrettably, the design elements were not enough to transport me into the world of the play. I found myself growing more and more impatient. Having lived for a year in the Catskills, this was not a Woodstock I recognized and certainly not with people I want to spend time. I am also fairly certain I never saw any seagulls there, but that's the least of the problems with The Seagull/Woodstock, NY.

The Seagull/Woodstock, NY
Through April 9, 2023
The New Group
Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, New York Ny
Tickets online and current performance schedule: