Why is it that in cinema, remakes are so often reviled, whereas in theater, each new production of a classic play brings a fresh wave of anticipation, as we wonder how the director and cast might choose to interpret the characters this time around, and thrill to the idea of watching the material brought to life again? That question is further complicated in the case of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” since no definitive big-screen adaptation of the 1896 play exists. Sadly, that will not change with the arrival of director Michael Mayer’s latest attempt, despite the tantalizing prospect of seeing actresses as great as Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, and Annette Bening in the three leading female roles.
Whether you know the play well or are experiencing it for the first time, you may well find yourself asking, What was Mayer hoping to achieve? Despite the gift of Chekhov’s words (as adapted by Stephen Karam) and a noteworthy cast (which also boasts “House of Cards” actor Corey Stoll as celebrated writer Tregorin), the play has been transformed into a whirling pinwheel of busy activity and swooping camera moves, brusquely cut and energetically scored to suggest a kind of urgency that’s entirely at odds with its setting, which remains the far-from-Moscow remove of a 19th-century Russian estate.
There, using the tired device of giving audiences a taste of the climax before jumping back in time (which means flashing upon the gathering that will be so rudely interrupted by a rifle blast at the end of the play, without introducing the gun — Chekhov’s gun — quite so early), Mayer assembles a cluster of characters who burn with unrequited love for one another. Masha (Moss) loves Konstantin (Billy Howle), an earnest young playwright with impossibly high standards. Konstantin loves Nina (Ronan, who co-stars with Howle to deeper ends in the upcoming “On Chesil Beach”), a rich local girl with dreams of becoming an actress. Nina loves Tregorin (Stoll), the toast of Moscow, whose success as a writer further inflames Konstantin’s jealousy. And Tregorin loves the attention, having shown up as little more than arm candy for Konstantin’s mother, Irina (Bening), a self-important old actress and supreme diva.
Watching Bening do what Bening does as Irina is arguably the greatest pleasure “The Seagull” has to offer, at least in this particular incarnation, as she peacocks around her wealthy brother Sorin’s rural estate (the old man is played by Brian Dennehy). Irina treats even her offstage moments as if she were performing for a packed house — which, of course, she is to some extent, considering that, whether on stage or screen, her character is grandstanding as much for the real-world audience as she is for her family’s benefit. She comes on big, but the role is written in such a way that Bening also gets to reveal the character’s fragile insecurity as the show goes on.
Contrast that with Nina’s overconfident inexperience — the young debutante believes she has the potential to be a great actress as well, despite an all-too-evident lack of ability — and you have the foundation for comedic cross-generational tension, especially as Tregorin turns his attention from the woman whose vanity he feeds (Irina) to the naive ingenue who plays neatly into his own. This dynamic is all the more delicious in that it gives Ronan (one of her generation’s most impressive talents) a chance to share her idea of bad acting in Konstantin’s conceptual theater piece — a dense, deliberately self-important play-within-the-play that is too jumpily presented to work effectively here (in Stanislavsky’s revolutionary staging, the actors were famously seated with their backs to the audience).
Romantic and family folderol aside, one of Chekhov’s sincerest themes in “The Seagull” concerns the seriousness of art and how easily the public can be fooled into falling for cheap, pandering melodrama instead — a subject the Russian playwright addressed in the spirit of laugh-out-loud comedy by setting his play amid a community of writers and actors, established and aspiring (it is, after all, a very funny show). Every director who has ever tackled “The Seagull” must wrestle with these meta issues, and though the humor remains in Mayer’s telling, it’s often lost amid the other distractions.
Mayer (who made his directing debut with the deeply felt “A Home at the End of the World”) has plenty of stage experience, but no one would accuse him of making this adaption feel too stuffy or theatrical. If anything, he has turned the very advantages that film offers as a medium — the ability to frame and focus the audience’s attention, the chance to compress/expand/repeat time, and that elusive sense of realism Chekhov pursued onstage throughout his career — against the play itself, upstaging the emotional truths and dramatic twists that really ought to be the focus, to the point that those unfamiliar with the source material might do well to read up on it before seeing this attention-deficit adaptation.
Reshuffling a number of well-known scenes, Mayer inexplicably bumps one of the play’s best-known lines (when asked why she always wears black, Masha replies, “I’m in mourning for my life”) from the opening scene to a seemingly random spot later on, encouraging Moss to further drown her melancholy in broadly pantomimed inebriation (which becomes a running joke). Among the adaptation’s other mysteries, adopting DP Matthew J. Lloyd’s aggressively handheld shooting style raises the question of why Mayer didn’t update the setting to a more modern milieu — the way recent adaptations “Hollywood Seagull” and “Days and Nights” did with America’s West and East coasts. In a sense, each new take on Chekhov sheds insight on the timelessness of the material, and yet, this one does more to reveal missed opportunities for the next team to explore.