Medvedenko loves Masha, but Masha loves Konstantin, who, in turn, loves Nina and playwriting. Nina loves acting and Konstantin, but now she also loves Trigorin and while he's fascinated with her, mostly he loves himself, and then sometimes he loves Arkadina. Arkadina, however, only loves Arkadina. And sometimes her son, Konstantin, who both loves and hates his mother.
Such is the state of affairs in the newest Broadway production of Anton Chekhov's 1896 play, "The Seagull," considered one of the playwright's masterpieces, but a flop when it was first produced in Russia. Audiences hated the ensemble play that had no obvious protagonist and no central moral conflict. It was, or is, rather, a play of personalities, relationships, creative frustration, and that relentless enemy of everyone: time.
"Seagull" is what you might call a "slice of life" play, where you are dropped in on action already in progress, and leave while things are still going on but nothing is really resolved. Like a soap opera. The difference here is that each character in "Seagull" has a fully formed personality with a history, temperament, and, a pervading sense of hopelessness about the future that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Would that they were interesting people.
On this day, as the play opens, the whole melancholy crew has come together to see the first performance of Konstantin's new play. Konstantin is experimenting with a new form of drama, hoping to make his mark, and hoping that his self-centered mother will approve of her son's creation. But Arkadina sees the unconventional work as silly, and actually laughs aloud in mid-performance.
Arkadina, however, is too wrapped up in her own problems to see the devastating effect her behavior has on her son. A woman of a certain age, though still beautiful and sensuous, she's aware that time is the undisputed cause of her inevitably fading career. Her current lover, Trigorin, is a famous Russian novelist, but he's too busy worrying about his own legacy to be concerned with Arkadina's distress. "There lies Trigorin; he wasn't as good as Turgenev," he laments when talking about what he expects his epitaph to say.
Nina, though adored by Konstantin, has turned her eyes toward Trigorin, another angst-ridden writer. Oblivious to the fact that Arkadina is jealous of her, Nina thinks only of becoming an actress and the prospect of fame. She's enthralled with Trigorin as he talks about the creative life, and is resolute that an actor's life is for her.
Konstantin sees Nina looking goo-goo eyed at Trigorin and he's bereft. What he wants, he can't have, but the one who wants him, he doesn't want. Masha sits rigid through all this, dressed in black, watching and hoping against hope that Konstantin will look at her. Her admirer, Medvedenko, tries hard to woo her but she's steadfast. When he inquires why she's wearing black, she responds that "I'm in mourning for my life."
Mackenzie Crook as Konstantin looks the part of the suicidal playwright with his slender physique, high cheek bones and scraggly hair. Yet Nina, enthusiastically played by a virginal Carey Mulligan, sees only the potential of this undeveloped playwright. As is always the case with youth, for her there awaits a glorious future.
Zoe Kazan is laughable -- unintended, surely -- in her melodramatic portrayal of Masha, but she's almost an aside since the star of his production is Kristin Scott Thomas. As Arkadina, she is indeed luminous, but playing against a cast of characters that look like members of the Addams family ultimately drag her down.
One is supposed to be awed by Chekhov, but if "Seagull" were to be the only one of his plays extant, assuredly he'd fall from this exalted position. As a group, these characters are a hapless bunch whiners who wallow in self-pity as they reject love that's freely given, and pursue love that's withheld.
Though every major critic in the New York metro area praised "Seagull" with hyperbolic adjectives to describing the brilliance of this production, one has to really love Chekhov a whole lot to sit through this maudlin story. It would have made a better novel.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus
"Magnificent production." & "The finest and most fully involving production of Chekhov that I have ever known." & "Ms. Scott Thomas, who was excellent as the aging actress Arkadina in London, here delivers a magnified, intensified performance that more than ever is the keystone to understanding this play."
New York Times
"The production is as stirring as it is entertaining." & "As the aging theater diva Arkadina, Scott Thomas is sly-eyed, sharp-tongued and sure-footed and holds you rapt while just standing motionless. In short, she's heaven in her Broadway debut." & "Rickson's ...serene, soaring "Seagull" makes a 113-year-old story feel as fresh as a cool breeze."
New York Daily News
"Wonderfully subtle production." & "This is a play about thrown-away lives and spiritual emptiness, and here it's staged with natural fluency by Ian Rickson, with an elegant new adaptation by Christopher Hampton that sounds as though it were written the day before yesterday. No wonder it was a hit in London."
New York Post
"Bleak in visuals and chilly in manner, there is little beauty and no charm to Rickson's grim interpretation of Christopher Hampton's neatly composed text. "
"The acting is mostly good, though the casting and direction are questionable. The women are either exaggerated or misrepresented: The always fascinating Scott Thomas is prodded into an Arkadina even more actressy than the text already calls for; Zoe Kazan's Masha is more histrionic than written."
"Sarsgaard doesn't rise to the challenges confronting him any more than his complex and crucial character does. It might be an overstatement to say that his curiously awkward, lackluster performance fatally wounds this Seagull, but only a slight one." & "This Seagull may not leave audiences feeling as thwarted as its lovelorn characters, but its uneven casting makes for a frustrating experience."
"There is lively staging and powerful acting, but the joy is missing. These people don't even seem to have any affection for each other, an essential element of the author's vision." & "However, the main reason for this transfer is the stunning performance of Kristin Scott Thomas as the self-centered Arkadina, and she is definitely worth the price of admission."
"Chekhov's reputation hardly needs rescuing, but this effort knocks off the stylization encrusted in a century of revivals to reveal the playwright's essential dramatic power." & "Not, unfortunately, a seamlessly special experience. Most of it, though, from conception to execution, is inspired."
"The disappointed souls who populate "The Seagull," Anton Chekhov's exquisite tale of regret by way of ill-fated romance, have never looked or, what is more important, sounded better." & "Who knew so much unhappiness could be so theatrically satisfying."
"Beautifully modulated revival of Chekhov's classic." & "There has been an absolute glut of "Seagull" revivals recently in New York, but this rendition is special enough to make the play's return a welcome event nonetheless."
The Hollywood Reporter
"Injecting startling vitality, immediacy and infinite nuance into Chekhov's 1895 play. Rarely is the writer's signature balance of humor, pathos and tragedy so exquisitely rendered or the modulation between them orchestrated so affectingly. Despite one casting choice that doesn't quite measure up, this is powerful theater."