The Seagull/Woodstock, NY | 2hrs 40mins. One intermission. | Pershing Square Signature Center | 480 West 42nd Street | 917-935-4242
How many of us have sat through a Chekhov and mused: This could use more masturbation. Thomas Bradshaw thought it and he wrote it: an aggressive update of the Russian classic about artistic sellouts, sex, and suicide at a country estate. Gone are the samovars and carriages; in come the vape pens and an electric Bentley. Tortured writer and son Konstantin is now Kevin (Nat Wolff), a heavily medicated Gen Z edgelord; his domineering actress/hack mother, Irene, is played to preening perfection by Parker Posey; Irene’s lover, the novelist Trigorin, has become William, a Black bestselling author (Ato Essandoh) patiently grooming the dewy aspiring actress Nina (Aleyse Shannon). At least, it seems like grooming, until Nina takes William’s hand and shoves it under her dress.
Subtlety is not among the virtues of Bradshaw’s cheerfully vulgar refurbishing, which retains the bones of Chekhov’s 1895 comedy while adding brand names, raw talk, and a light dusting of racial controversy. Walmart, Viagra and Starbucks are namechecked in the first 20 minutes. The action takes plays in and around a comfortable summer home in the Catskills, frequented by theater types, a pot-smoking brain surgeon (Bill Sage), and a local landowner (Daniel Oreskes) who looks like he hasn’t touched the soil in decades. Kevin’s experimental play within the play (a spoof of Strindbergian symbolism in the original) manifests as a monologue by Nina about self-love in the bathtub and ends with her inviting William to watch her naked behind a curtain.
Later in the play, the besotted writer tells Nina that he took a DNA test and discovered that he’s 36% European, a complete revelation. Raised to respect and uphold his Black heritage, now William can claim a percentage of identity (and pride) from England, Greece, France and elsewhere. “I saw for the first time that I am a citizen of the world,” he declares. Liberated from the dichotomy of black versus white, William has concluded that only interracial marriage and biracial children will heal our divided country. Nina, whose mother was Black and father was white, is intrigued but skeptical. So is the audience, which chuckles along but can’t quite identify what the author believes or expects us to swallow.
Bradshaw, the Andy Kaufman of millennial playwrights, has been goosing our racial and sexual sensitivities for over 15 years. He began with shoestring productions Off-Off Broadway at P.S. 122, and graduated to regional houses and Off Broadway, thanks to frequent collaborations with the New Group (the producer here). Writing in a flat, declarative style that’s both casual and affectless, his characters vocalize their base urges, but not to win our sympathy. Bradshaw creations crave sex or booze or power, and they don’t hide their appetites or hatreds. Despite the ugliness of these free-roaming ids, the plays are funny, even guileless. One minute Irene is screaming at her son, “Your work isn’t good enough to get produced at a dinner theater in Kansas City! That’s why Nina won’t fuck you, you little faggot!” And the next she’s consoling Kevin in soothing tones. It’s not actually that big a departure from Chekhov.
Which is partly why this half-stunt, half-homage ultimately disappoints. After you’ve acclimated to the colorful language and pervasive horniness of the amusing first half, you realize Bradshaw has adapted The Seagull without deviating from the plot. Depressive Sasha (Hari Nef) marries the milquetoast schoolteacher (Patrick Foley), despite unrequited love for Kevin. Kevin gains praise for his writing. Nina enters into a disastrous affair with William that leaves her half-mad and identifying with the title bird. The shock is how by-the-book it all is. If only Bradshaw and director Scott Elliott had gone farther into sacrilege, as Dmitry Krymov did with a savage, gut-renovated Cherry Orchard in Philadelphia last spring.
Worse, a too-indulgent Elliott sets a dragging pace, so the two-hour-and-forty-minute run time feels longer, a disservice to the appealing, energetic cast. From the cutesy opening with a group singalong (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Our House”) to the limp ending—suicidal Kevin dead offstage, other actors around a Scrabble board, giggling—there’s an air of tentativeness. The last scene cries for wildness: a dance party, Kevin going postal, an orgy, anything but fidelity. If Bradshaw contemplated big blasphemies to the canon, he chickened out with Seagull.