The Mike Nichols Seagull : Every Other Line a Laugh!

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

about death.

“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

none.”

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

theater.

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

Seagull .

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

herself.

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.