The happiest news about the big bird that has landed in Central Park is that the determined folks camping out every night to land tickets are not likely to go home disgruntled after an audience with this famously feathered creature. Mike Nichols’ “Seagull” is not the lumpy, undercooked fruitcake that celebrity-riddled productions of classics — Chekhov in particular — can often become.
That’s not to say that it’s a revelatory exploration of the play’s richer currents, either. The kind of fine-tuned acting that does full justice to Chekhov might be too much to expect in the challenging environment of the Delacorte Theater, which seats almost 2,000 and requires the use of an amplifying sound system.
What Nichols & Co. have achieved is an honorable substitution: Robustly funny and pleasingly fluid, rather too blunt and just fleetingly moving, this is a canny and crowd-pleasing staging of Chekhov’s aching comedy about the follies of love and of art.
The particular sense of occasion surrounding the production comes courtesy of the actress playing the actress, of course. Meryl Streep’s return to the stage in the role of Arkadina after 20 years of film stardom is indeed a major showbiz event, and this consummately skilled performer rises to the occasion in grand style. From her first entrance to her last troubled look, she commands the stage as if she never left it.
Beautifully costumed by Bob Crowley in laces and velvet and silks, she is, to begin with, breathtakingly handsome and impossibly young-looking. When Arkadina exults in her happy state of self-preservation, suspension of disbelief is certainly not required.
Streep skillfully mines the part for all of its flamboyant extremes, playing Arkadina as a woman whose skirts might be trimmed with footlights. She accents lines with colorful flourishes of the hand and even twirls across the wooden floor in a cartwheel at one surprising point, to a round of applause that signals the amusing dualities taking place onstage.
Streep is giving the audience a generous star turn in the role of a woman who sees life as one long star turn, and there is much pleasure to be found in watching this effortlessly charismatic actress wrap the audience around her little finger, much in the way Arkadina herself wraps her family around hers, despite her selfishness and avarice.
For all its admirable wit and theatricality, however, the performance shares the limitations of the production as a whole: It is not particularly subtle, and subtlety, many would argue, is of the essence in Chekhov. (The playwright had a horror of “theatricality.”)
Streep accents the comedy in Arkadina’s greed and waspishness to the extent of crowding out her aristocratic charm, fearful neediness and confused but authentic affections, making it hard for us to care about her in the way we should care about all of Chekhov’s flawed, messily human characters. When Arkadina lightly teases her young rival Nina, calling her a “clever little miss,” Streep’s voice fairly drips acid.
The scorching ferocity of Streep’s Arkadina does, however, go some way toward explaining the utterly defeated Konstantin of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who seems resigned to a marginalized life even before his mother cruelly dismisses his doomed debut as a playwright.
The unprepossessing Hoffman is an unusual choice for the role of the proud and passionate Konstantin, and pride and passion are notably absent from his somewhat too lachrymose performance. But his pained bleat of a voice brings a certain slacker-era irony to the role that, while not of the 19th century, is certainly recognized and appreciated by the young audiences in the 21st.
In the same manner that the piteousness of Hoffman’s Konstantin and the cattiness of Streep’s Arkadina tend to dominate their portrayals, the cast of famous-named supporting actors largely emphasize a single defining character trait — usually a comic one — at the expense of their character’s full humanity.
So Kevin Kline’s somewhat stiff Trigorin is world-weary, Marcia Gay Harden’s Masha cranky and bitter, Stephen Spinella’s Medvedenko a pathetic puppy, Christopher Walken’s Sorin a neurotic griper whose complaints have the familiar rhythms of Woody Allen dialogue. Larry Pine oozes Dorn’s matter of fact cynicism quite capably, and John Goodman lumbers happily on and offstage as the put-upon estate manager Shamrayev.
The comic contours of the characters are all cleanly delineated in these uniformly polished turns, but their disappointed hearts are often made light of here, even when the soul-baring speeches come rippling through Tom Stoppard’s clean if occasionally too crisp translation.
Sorin’s laments about his wasted life should raise a pang or two, for example; as delivered by the ghoulishly dissolute-looking Walken, they beget only more laughter.
Nichols’ staging is fluent and clear, and designer Crowley has made masterly use of the outdoor setting, but the ensemble doesn’t quite achieve the natural cohesion of superior Chekhov productions.
Nevertheless, Streep’s captivating return to the stage isn’t the only aspect of the production that lends it a heightened significance. There is another actress here who rivets our attention merely by stepping onstage: Natalie Portman, whose portrayal of the dreamy Nina is as remarkable as Streep’s, albeit in a diametrically opposed manner.
Portman, too, is a breathtaking creature, possessed of the kind of pure, radiant beauty that seems to carry a positive spiritual charge. But where Streep’s performance is all art, Portman’s is all artlessness — perhaps as it should be for these two actresses at different junctures in their careers.
Portman’s performance in the first act has a freshness equal to her beauty: It is all innocence and awkwardness and nervous impulses exposed. (It is also, sadly, being dismissed as amateurishness by many.)
Romping across the stage with the slight stiffness of a young foal, or bursting into nervous fits of giggles from sheer surfeit of emotion, she is the embodiment of the youthful hope that lives in the memory of so many Chekhov characters long since defeated by life and circumstance.
Her helpless confusion at Konstantin’s offering of the seagull is gently heartbreaking, as is the shy rapture with which she listens to Trigorin’s cynical treatise on writing.
Nina dreams of a life onstage and the happiness she imagines it guarantees. When she returns to visit Konstantin in the play’s agonized last act, she has been abandoned by Trigorin, who has returned to Arkadina, and her dreams of stardom have evaporated. In their place is a tremulous determination to soldier on in her chosen path, deriving stamina from the pleasure she takes in her craft and taking pleasure in her stamina: “knowing how to keep going despite everything.”
It’s a painfully difficult scene to play, and Portman hasn’t mastered all its emotional intricacies. But “The Seagull” is about, among other things, the elusiveness of art, the long odds against true creative achievement in a world that prizes other things more highly. Watching Portman struggle through this scene — and, yes, be defeated by it — is in itself a moving illustration of that painful truth.
Maybe the most remarkable aspect of this “Seagull” is the chance it affords two extraordinary actresses, one in the middle of an already legendary career, the other radiant with exciting promise, to explore what it means to be an actress onstage. It’s a thrill to witness them both.