Manhattan Theater Club’s season in hell, unhappily coinciding with its first season on Broadway, continues with this seriously incoherent production. Indeed, critical response to Regina Taylor’s rambling riff on “The Seagull” may leave Lynne Meadow & Co. pining for those frosty December days when a certain TV star stalked out the door and into the headlines. At least then the bad press concerned disasters backstage, not onstage.
Chekhov probably has been subjected to more severe depredations than this ill-conceived production, even if none readily springs to mind. The story of the aging actress Arkadina, her troubled son Constantin and the naive young Nina, seduced and abandoned by Arkadina’s lover Trigorin, has been transported from 19th-century Russia to 21st-century America. Long-suffering Chekhov has made many such journeys before, of course, but rarely has so much baggage been lost along the way. In effecting the transition, Taylor and director Marion McClinton seem to have mislaid — oops! — the entirety of the play’s emotional content, not to mention its subtle but sure dramatic potency.
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Set in the Gullah Islands of South Carolina, Taylor’s adaptation substitutes contemporary African-American equivalents for Chekhov’s down-at-heels aristocrats and aspiring artists. But in some ways the playwright has not taken a sufficiently free hand: It seems odd that Josephine Nicholas Ark Trip (Alfre Woodard), the cumbersomely renamed Arkadina character, remains an actress devoted to the stage. In 19th-century Russia, theater was hardly the specialized (or marginalized) art form that, like it or not, it has become today. When Josephine loftily refers to her long, storied stage career, you are tempted to question her sanity: Where, exactly, has she been performing for all these years to such eclat?
More ludicrous still is the notion that a young black man — or a young white one, for that matter — would devote his life to upending the constricting conventions of today’s theater, as Josephine’s son Constantin, or C-Trip, apparently does. Who would notice if he did? The prevailing air of unreality established by these details is little dissipated by making C-Trip a sort of rap playwright or performance artist. Why not just make him a rapper, or a musician, to begin with, and Josephine an aging R&B diva?
Not that Taylor stints on references to contemporary black culture. There’s an allusion to a black actor, artist or sports figure on virtually every page: Halle Berry, James Baldwin, Paul Robeson, Amiri Baraka, Ntozake Shange, Tiger Woods — everybody but Janet Jackson’s celebrated right breast gets a shout-out. But these incidental references feel cosmetic, as do many of the dubious and confused stylistic effects Taylor and McClinton have come up with to give the show a funky veneer of “street cred.”
The first act, for example, opens and closes with pulsating rap numbers and splashy video effects. And Anthony Mackie’s C-Trip acts intermittently as a sort of rapping emcee — much of his dialogue is rhymed. (It is never explained how he can be narrating or writing a story that ends with his death.) But these attempts to slap some cool urban style on the Chekhov narrative seem more than a little desperate.
Only rarely does Taylor explore more deeply the manner in which the anomie and unsatisfied yearnings of Chekhov’s characters could be meaningfully reconceived to suit the emotional dilemmas of black Americans. There are occasional references to an inherited sense of dislocation and submerged longing that can be traced back to their ancestors’ violent separation from their homeland.
C-Trip and Josephine argue over how much she has compromised her dignity to assimilate into the larger culture. And the Trigorin character, called Robert Alexander Trigor and recast as a writer with both novels and TV series to his credit, also muses credibly on accommodations he’s had to make to succeed in show business. (He spits out a hilarious joke suggesting what the initials UPN stand for.) But such insightful revelations are all too rare.
More damagingly, Taylor and McClinton fail to credibly establish the complex web of emotional relationships among the characters so central to the success of any Chekhov production — even a pseudo-Chekhov production. The skeleton of the plot remains, and there are specific equivalents for each of Chekhov’s characters, but the delicate emotional contours have all but disappeared. Aside from the central quartet, most of the characters are vaguely and unsatisfyingly drawn.
With McClinton seemingly preoccupied in trying to reconcile the stylistic divagations of the text, it’s hardly surprising the performances are uneven. Mackie stands out for the clear-cut emotional veracity and sheer theatrical vitality he brings to his central role; although C-Trip is scarcely credible as a character, this powerful young actor imbues him with the vibrant emotional presence of a real human being.
Peter Francis James, as Trigor, deserves a special nod for being the only actor in tune with the special mood Chekhov requires. Sadly, Woodard, often a powerful actress on film and TV, is at sea here — she overstates almost everything.
David Gallo’s sets are inspired by the work of Kara Walker, an artist who uses mock-Victorian imagery to explore African-American culture and history. It’s a smart and fitting idea on paper, but the effect is far too stylized, particularly for a production that could sorely use some grounding in reality, from any source.
On paper, in fact, the entire production might have seemed a clever idea. But on the Biltmore stage, the dream of illuminating a contemporary world with light borrowed from the past has, sadly, gone up in smoke.
That, at least, is sort of Chekhovian.