The symbolic bird killed by brooding writer Konstantin in “The Seagull” returns to Ian Rickson’s production in the shattering final scene, stuffed and mounted in a glass display case. But the director, adaptor Christopher Hampton and their fine ensemble have achieved a complete reversal of the taxidermist’s approach, 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.
Premiered at London’s Royal Court and transferred to Broadway with much of its cast intact, Rickson’s production brings the pleasure of rediscovery and fresh responses to a frequently produced classic — which seems appropriate given the play’s contemplation of a writer consumed by the desire to challenge existing forms.
In dialogue stripped of starchy formality yet never impaired by jarring contemporary intrusions, Hampton’s lucid new version places all the standard Chekhovian themes in stinging relief: self-reflection and regret; romantic, artistic and idealistic disappointment; decay of the soul and society; and the encroaching obsolescence of the bored upper class. But in a play notable for the fact that almost all its drama is internal, what’s most rewarding is the way in which this production lays bare the characters’ emotions in subtle ways.
Credit for that disclosure goes beyond writing and direction to the meticulous design elements and, naturally, to the cast, almost all of whom inhabit their roles with a level of understanding denied the characters themselves.
As defined by Art Malik’s wryly detached Dr. Dorn, the actors, writers, unfulfilled aesthetes and thankless servants gathered on a Russian country estate are either neurotic or boring, while for starry-eyed actress Nina (Carey Mulligan), the knowledge distilled from her disillusionment is that “life is ugly.” However, it’s in the intimate, real-life shadings between those blunt assessments that this production excels.
Take, for example, Kristin Scott Thomas as fading actress Arkadina. From the moment we meet her, she relentlessly turns the spotlight on herself, leaning forward with studied intensity to take in the ponderous play written by her son Konstantin (Mackenzie Crook) and performed by Nina. Much of what we need to know about Arkadina is etched in her showy reactions and constant interruptions. But underneath the flamboyant narcissism there’s a twitchy insecurity — a discomfort that makes her unable to regard her son as a fellow artist, and even less so Nina, an actress more youthful and beautiful than she is.
It’s the anchoring naturalism brought even to this diva in chronic performance mode that makes Scott Thomas so transfixing.
Floating on a cloud of vanity and condescension, Arkadina might almost be a caricature, but Scott Thomas shows flashes of needling anxiety as she perceives her son’s pain yet remains powerless to soothe him. When a maternal impulse does fight its way through the theatrics, it seems to surprise even Arkadina before being swept aside in one of the magnificent mood swings of her defensive self-absorption.
That mother-son relationship plays in moving contrast to the unconditional affection of Arkadina’s brother Sorin (Peter Wight) for his nephew. Distractedly brushing a flower through his beard or caressing Nina’s shoes, Wight conveys the ache of a man who has never known love, is ruefully considering the missed opportunities of his life and is impotent in his lack of influence over his impossible sister.
Konstantin’s steady self-destruction is given wrenching life by Crook. Gaunt and tormented, he bristles with nervous frustration whenever his mother is near, and simmers with resentment — both personal and professional — toward her lover, successful writer Trigorin (Peter Sarsgaard).
Konstantin’s yearning for his mother’s affection is matched by his tender feelings for Nina. The luminous Mulligan plays her as a guileless but sympathetic provincial, hungering for a career as an actress, but even more for the “fame… real, spectacular fame” that comes with it. While her tearful fragility makes her seem an entirely different species from Arkadina, Nina’s manic determination to endure, even after she’s been chewed up and spat out by Trigorin, gives the two women commonalities.
There’s heart-breaking poignancy in the production’s depiction of those doomed to love the wrong people and to see their dreams go unrealized. Even when “The Seagull” is played for comedy, as in the early scenes with funereal estate manager’s daughter Masha (Zoe Kazan), the melancholy strain haunts the action like minor-key underscoring.
Hollow-eyed and stoop-shouldered, Kazan’s Masha is all sullen, self-dramatizing gloom (“I’m in mourning for my life”), suggesting that her feelings for Konstantin — the only one of the group more miserable than she is — may be merely a carryover crush from childhood. But as she vows to rip out that love by its roots, marrying devoted lapdog Medvedenko (a touching Pearce Quigley) instead, the full agony of Masha’s situation steadily blooms.
That shifting emotional range, via almost imperceptible degrees, from amusement to compassion to stunning hardness is Rickson and Hampton’s crowning achievement.
Designer Hildegard Bechtler echoes the transitions. The handful of birch trees against an austere black wall has one foot in traditional Chekhovian presentation and the other in modern minimalism. But if that picture places a somber veil on the characters’ early lakeside interaction, the move indoors to the house’s frayed, sad interior with its windows looking onto darkness seals the image of a crumbling world being drained of life. The seagull is not the only facsimile of a living thing on view behind glass here.
The production’s one unsatisfying note is Sarsgaard. The insight and intelligence so evident in the actor’s screen roles get muffled in his curiously spent performance. His passionless Trigorin lends weight to the notion that Arkadina is drawn to him solely for the reflected glow of his fame. But while he does slowly reveal the opportunistic worm beneath the self-possessed surface, Sarsgaard appears to be struggling to get a read on his role for much of the play.
Still, one uncertain characterization in a panorama of so many full-bodied, revelatory ones does little to dull the incandescence or the overwhelming emotional impact of this illuminating production.