The Seagull
Public Theater

What Chekhov's admirers and imitators appreciate so much -- and what apparently only the Russian master himself could achieve -- is his lifelike quality. I used to think this quality resided primarily in the language. The Seagull, my favorite play in the world, has the occasional awkward pause, the disjointed reverie, Dr. Dom's almost-constant singing to himself, Masha's mumbling that her foot has fallen asleep -- all details that are unforgettable because they are so familiar from everyday life yet so often absent from drama. As it happens, however, this elliptical surface writing is not so difficult to reproduce. It has become, in fact, the basis of most modern realistic drama -- two handy examples are Hugh Leonard's A Life and Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July. But where the Irish typically lapse into sentimentality and Americans require a happy ending -- unnatural conclusions invented by tidy-minded art-makers -- Chekhov remains true to the terrifying aimlessness of life, the bluntness and ambiguity of a gesture such as The Seagull’s final gunshot.

This is confirmed in Andrei Serban's odd, Noh-inspired production at the Public. Serban apparently directed his first Seagull last summer in Tokyo and brought back the Japanese production concept almost intact. The curtain rises on a gleaming hardwood floor; Treplev's stage is being built to specifications similar to that of a Noh stage's, and across the back is a slightly elevated bridgeway that soon becomes used for regular ceremonial processions. What's more, the acting is somewhat stylized; pauses freeze into studied tableaus, offhanded remarks ("My foot's fallen asleep") are made too much of, entrances and exits are comically exaggerated.

The effect is immediately disconcerting. When you are young, you want to identify with The Seagull (at least I did); you treasure the play's feverish romanticism, its sagacious advice to artists, its extremely appealing melancholia, the glamor of Arkadina's career and Trigorin's fame. You want to be like those people. By conducting the play's action as a combination of theatrical ritual and real life, Serban places the characters at a distance from us so we see them not as romanticized versions of ourselves but simply as people.

Not especially savory people, either. Brent Spiner's Treplev is not a noble, misunderstood poet but a whiny, callow nerd, Rosemary Harris' supposedly grand Arkadina is a charmless bitch, Pamela Payton-Wright's Masha a Charles Addams cartoon with her pipe smoke and pratfalls, Kathryn Dowling's Nina as moist and mindless as a rock star's groupie on her first noseful of cocaine. These people are not despicable; they are by turns amusing, disagreeable, boring and wise. And their concerns are simple: money (there's never enough), time (misspent), love (usually unrequited). It's interesting to notice that Chekhov never has his characters do anything in order to make an audience like them; the question of liking them or not liking them never comes up. People are just that way.

Serban has some really good ideas about The Seagull and tracks its mood swings very well. For instance, he's noticed that Arkadina's lover Trigorin says almost nothing and remains in the background for the first half of the play; you don't really register that until his long scene with Nina, when Christopher Walken (surprisingly but well cast as Trigorin rather than, say, Treplev) launches his long discourse on writing not as seductive reflection but as an aggressive torrent of stored-up words. His graceless self-absorption is what heats up Nina's own self-centered fantasy about being destroyed by a strange man. (Dowling makes this perverse longing palpable in the finest moment of a spotty performance.)

What I found most interesting about the production - and I don't know if this was even the director's intention - was that it made me think about Chekhov specifically in relation to Shakespeare and Beckett. The Seagull includes two explicit references to Hamlet, of course, as well as themes and sub-themes of suicide, incest, life-as-theater, etc. But something about Serban's skillfully staged group scenes and use of music seems positively Shakespearean, and the remarks about art by Treplev and Dorn seem as freshly sensible as Hamlet's instructions to the players and Polonius' fatherly advice. The Beckett connection is more bizarre; it comes to mind only because George Hall, who plays Sorin, reminds me of George. Voskovec, who played Willie in Serban's production last year of Happy Days. That slight tip-off is enough to make the moment when Arkadina throws herself at Trigorin's feet and he says, “Somebody might come in," reminiscent of Waiting for Godot. On the continuum of modern drama, Chekhov does indeed perch somewhere between Shakespeare’s bustling poetry and Beckett’s bleak prose, and it’s a tribute to Serban that he is able to draw that connecting line in a production so buoyant and invigorating as this one. The fourth act doesn’t quite work for me, but then it and The Seagull as a whole are as great and unmanageable as life itself. 

Soho News, November 12, 1980