If I had to choose a favorite Chekhov play, it would be The Seagull . Who can resist a play about
theater and love? And here we have one about a famous actress and an aspiring
actress mirrored by a famous writer and an aspiring writer. What could be
better-or more deceptive-than a Chekhov drama about love and ideas and
innocence and the illusion of life: the human comedy? What turns the rhythmic,
everyday surfaces of the play into a masterpiece, however, is its unbearably
tragic center. The Seagull is a play
“Why do you always wear black?” goes the opening line.
“I’m in mourning for my life,” is Masha’s famous response.
It actually gets a laugh in Mike Nichols’ all-star
production in Central Park. But as Dorn, Chekhov’s
detached, philosophical doctor, would put it: “What can you do?” I’m not
certain that Mr. Nichols would wish to do much about it anyway. His admired
talent is for social satire and comedy, and the Academy Award winner Marcia Gay Harden, of all gifted people,
has been encouraged to portray Masha as a cartoon crone.
Masha’s ruined life, her grief and hardened heart, are the
outcome of bitter, unrequited love. But everyone in the play will be
dispossessed sooner or later, chopped down like cherry orchards.
There’s the innocent, aspiring actress Nina (Natalie
Portman), infatuated with fame, destroyed on a whim as a seagull shot for idle
sport. There’s Arkadina (Meryl Streep), the impossibly vain star actress:
captivating, stingy, self-deluding in middle age, clinging desperately to her
lover as if to the fading image of herself. The apparently charming lover,
Trigorin (Kevin Kline), is a successful writer who’s spiritually
dead, passive and spineless, and talented enough to see his own
second-ratedness. He writes his own sullen epitaph: “I’ll never be anything
more than charming and talented. And when I’m dead it’ll say on my gravestone,
‘Here lies Trigorin. He was good-but not as good as
Turgenev …. ‘”
The fourth member of the quartet breaks all hearts.
Konstantin (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the Hamlet-like aspiring writer, dies
three times over: for love of Nina, who wrecks her life when she runs away with
Trigorin; for love of his mother, Arkadina, who kills him with indifference;
for love of theater-yes, even for something as silly as theater. A man who
would die for theater is a man worth listening to.
“Up goes the curtain,” Konstantin says, in a blistering
speech rebelling against the conventional, deadly status quo and its
“predictable ragbag of worn-out routines.” “And there in a room with a wall
missing, inexplicably bathed in artificial light, are these great artists, these
high priests of sacred mystery, demonstrating how people eat, drink, make love,
walk about and wear their coats; and when they strain to squeeze out from their
trite little scenes some trite little moral for us to take home for use about
the house-when I’m handed this same old stuff in a thousand variations over and
over and over, then I’m afraid I run-like Maupassant ran when he clapped eyes
on the Eiffel Tower and took to his heels thinking his brain was about to be
crushed by the sheer weight of all that vulgarity.”
“We must have theater,” his Uncle Sorin suggests amiably.
“We need a new kind of theater,” Konstantin, the idealist, replies in
no uncertain terms. “If we can’t make it new, better to have
He-or Chekhov-would make a useful drama critic, no?
The self-hating, insignificant Konstantin is a fantastic
creation. He’s a suicidal, failed playwright created by Chekhov, most humane of
the great playwrights. Konstantin’s little play within The Seagull , performed by Nina before his mocking mother and
guests, fails miserably and seals his tragic fate.
In Tom Stoppard’s new
version of The Seagull that’s used by
Mr. Nichols in the production-forgive me, but does Mike Nichols ever work with
anyone who isn’t famous?-he argues that it’s a red herring that Dorn, who’s no
fool, is the one person who sees something in Konstantin’s play. “His response
is a psychological one,” he writes in the introduction, “a
recognition that something is lacking in his own life, and he would have
that response irrespective of whether Konstantin’s play were twice as lyrical
or twice as turgid.”
Perhaps; but no. Mr. Stoppard has
missed the point that the tragedy of Konstantin is that he’s a writer who sees
an answer but cannot convey it. Within his overheated play is the seed of a
revolutionary new theater of poetic images-and, for an instant, Dorn sees it,
too. In that overwritten, abstract, even “turgid” little play, Dorn has seen
the future-not because of something lacking in his own life, but because it’s
there. It’s an inspiring coincidence, anyway, that in the original production
of The Seagull , directed by
Stanislavsky at the Moscow Arts Theater, Konstantin was played by a young actor
called Vsevelod Meyerhold-who became the great experimental prophet of Russian
The secret to all Chekhov productions is mood. It’s the most
precarious atmosphere to capture naturally, like the sound of a violin string
snapping. Unfortunately, the production in the park is so over-miked, there are stretches when you can’t even be sure who’s
speaking. You cannot mike the nuances of mood anymore than you can bottle
magic. But when a character embraces another, we ought not to hear the
un-Chekhovian sound of muffled cannon fire.
No matter. (I guess.) We’re in the park on a summer night
overlooking the lake, as The Seagull overlooks
a lake in summer. The storms have thankfully cleared. “It’s stifling. There’ll
be a storm tonight, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Masha says to a ripple of
laughter from the excited audience before the play-within-a-play begins. And
Meryl Streep is back onstage after too long an absence. All is surely right
with the world.
But all, at best, is only half-right with the production.
The tragic core of the play is about the death of illusions and dreams, but Mr.
Nichols’ uneven direction has gone mostly for the Chekhovian surface, playing
it much too broadly. “Every other line a laugh?”
Samuel Beckett asked when advised of Mr. Nichols’ gift for comedy. The great
dramatist was dubious about the Mike Nichols production of Waiting for Godot at Lincoln
Center with another star cast
(Robin Williams and Steve Martin). Godot
with the red nose of a clown is one of the great clichés. The fatal flaw of the
starry Godot was that Mr. Nichols
produced a knockabout comedy (every other line a laugh). But it is a tragedy,
or tragicomedy. And so is Chekhov’s The
Ms. Streep overdoes her fluttering, spoilt, histrionic
Arkadina. It’s enjoyably witty as a broadly comic portrait of the famously
actressy grand dame, but she avoids confronting Arkadina’s glib cruelty. Ms.
Streep wants her giddy Arkadina to be liked too much. At one surprising point,
she suddenly cartwheels merrily across the stage for an easy laugh from the
applauding gallery. She wants to show us-I can only guess-that the
self-deluding Arkadina thinks she’s young at heart. I hate to mention this, but
the only other actress I’ve seen cartwheeling across the stage was Joan
Collins. She was playing Amanda in Private
Lives at the time. Now everyone knows that Ms. Collins is 102, but all of a
sudden, to the astonishment of all, there was our Joan cartwheeling wondrously
across the stage like an Olympic athlete.
My indecorous point is that the one and only Meryl Streep
shouldn’t be doing this, unless she insists. The absent killer in her Arkadina
is more crucial. Ms. Streep even defended Arkadina’s notorious stinginess in a
recent Times interview, arguing that
she supports her son and others. “Nobody understands about Arkadina and money,”
she claimed. “Even Chekhov didn’t.” What can you do? Arkadina is
chronically-and comically-mean with money because she cannot give. And Chekhov
knew better than anyone that she cannot give because she cares only for
Ms. Streep’s most rewarding moments include the quieter
mother-son scene with Mr. Hoffman’s squinty, neurotic and ultimately effective
Konstantin, and her big emotional scene when Arkadina fights to keep Trigorin
from leaving her. “Look at me! Look!” she pleads with him. “Are these eyes
lying to you?” (They are.)
I thought Kevin Kline’s
Trigorin too relaxed even for the relaxed Trigorin, and surprisingly
uninspired. Ms. Streep overplays; Mr. Kline underplays. The exquisite Natalie
Portman, whose stage experience is very limited, doesn’t, as yet, possess the
sense of Nina’s sheer enchantment and poetry, but she touches us in her
farewell scene with Konstantin. The bold non-celeb, Larry Pine, makes a solid,
unshowy Dorn. The Tony Award winners Stephen Spinella (as the pathetic
schoolteacher Medvedenko) and Debra Monk (as Polina, the mother of Masha) seem
to have popped into a party without knowing exactly why. John Goodman’s
blustery Shamrayev makes a poor Henry VIII.
However, I’ve always loved Christopher Walken in anything he
does, and I don’t intend to stop now. Mr. Walken plays Sorin, the retired,
loopy brother of Arkadina, and he plays him with his customary loopy aplomb.
He’s a most graceful actor, and we miss him whenever he exits. That he’s
playing the somewhat aristocratic Sorin sucking on a cigar as if he’s trying out
for The Sopranos isn’t quite the
point. Nor even is it too important that the Sorin we see strolling nimbly
about the place or hurling himself at a sofa because that’s what he wants to do
is, in fact, a sick, arthritic man confined mostly to a wheelchair.
No, the point and genius
of Mr. Walken is that he’s the only actor I’ve ever seen who can be in a role
and step outside it simultaneously . It’s an impossibility, but he pulls it off. And it puts him on
the dangerous edge, which is where we-with Konstantin-always prefer theater to
live. We cannot anticipate Mr. Walken for a second. He adores being onstage,
conveying the intimate pleasure of it. And in return, we give him our hands. He
brings the stage to unpredictable life and vitality, capturing the perplexed,
half-mad spirit of the dying Sorin. For all his well-known faults, Mr. Walken’s
a natural-the last person you might expect to be a Chekhov actor, and the only
actor onstage who truly is.