You take your seat, and the actors in front of you are doing warm-up exercises for their bodies and voices. It’s all very theater, dahhling. Hmm, you think, has the play begun? Is this a meta-thing because this is a drama about actors? Apparently, it’s really just a warm-up, and nothing to do with the play.
And so the tone is set; there is certainly a lot of fun to be had in Thomas Bradshaw’s play, The Seagull/Woodstock, NY (Signature, to April 9). A modern-day adaptation of Chekhov’s famous play, staged by the New Group and directed by Scott Elliott, it follows a group of theater types as they bitch, laugh, and fall in and out of love and lust in an upstate, arty idyll owned by retired lawyer Samuel (David Cale). Then at the end, three years on, as lives have been changed and tragedy—just wait for that gunshot—beckons. The audience sits around the three edges of the stage, which is a flat platform with scant decoration.
This adaptation is more comedy than tragedy. It revels in Broadway and theater in-jokes. It’s gleefully profane and irreverent. Smarts and general bitchiness are at a premium. Sure, sadness nibbles at the play’s edges, but the darker shores of Chekhov go unexplored; it feels more upscale sex farce. The love square is lusty, and the heartbreak that the cheating and lust necessarily produces—because people are careless, and theater people boning each other are the most careless of all—is sidelined. The play feels a lark, and strains for a deeper profundity.
The most fun is being had by Parker Posey, who takes on the part of Irene with a divinely snarky zip, a theater actress in her 50’s who’s “Broadway-famous,” as one character says, to bitchily put her celebrity into its proper context. Irene shows up with her partner William (Ato Essandoh), who is a successful and very handsome Black writer and younger than Irene. This relationship is viewed with disdain by Kevin (Nat Wolff), Irene’s son, who is himself in love with biracial aspiring actor Nina (Aleyse Shannon), in her 20’s, who idolizes Irene, and who is also attracted to William—and William is attracted to Nina.
Meanwhile Sasha (Hari Nef), is—just as The Seagull’s Masha—perennially miserable, a walking cloud of angst and regret and unreciprocated love for Kevin. Instead, she is with Mark (Patrick Foley), a teacher who she actively and vocally despises. Indeed, their relationship seems so rotten and dead on arrival it’s a mystery why they are together. “Don’t concern yourself with my happiness. Some of us were born to suffer,” Sasha says in one of her more cheerful pronouncements.
Sometimes you are sad for Sasha, sometimes her sadness seems to invite laughter, sometimes you might feel flattened by her eyerolls. A typical exchange between her and Mark goes, Mark (rightly, and what a tough part for Foley to go through every night!): “I don’t get why you’re always so sullen. You have everything a person could want. And you don’t have to work.” Sasha: “You think you’d be happy if you were rich, but you wouldn’t, because you’d still be the same pathetic, spineless tool of a human being.” She makes it clear to Mark she would “fuck the shit” of Kevin every chance she got if he was not with Nina.
The conversations between the characters are mostly whipcrack nastiness, arch musing, witty putdowns, and bare-knuckle cattiness. Also trying to avoid the verbal shrapnel are brain surgeon Dean (Bill Sage), Darren (Daniel Oreskes) and Pauline (Amy Stiller), who are Sasha’s parents.
Posey’s Irene wafts about the stage trying not very hard to be humble, while making it very clear she expects to be treated as the star diva that she is. Kevin doesn’t just think William is not worthy of her; their charged confrontations lead to a moment where his own attraction to his mother is made clear. Irene is everyone’s fiercest critic, including her son. After seeing Nina perform Kevin’s confrontational play-within-a-play, taking in racism, the N-word, masturbation and eventually sex behind a curtain, she pronounces: “There’s nothing new about what Kevin’s doing. At LaMama in the 60’s people were ‘confronting the audience,’ running around naked and defecating on stage like it was going out of style. And there’s a reason that trend didn’t last—because no one wanted to see that!”
Just as in the original Seagull—and the dramas around Boris Trigorin, Nina, fading actress Irina, and her playwright son Konstantin—the drama here revolves around the love/lust shenanigans around Irene, William, Kevin, and Nina, with Sasha looking balefully on.
Sometimes the play changes emotional register, but it’s hard for the audience to key into its more serious or moving intentions. Posey is a wonderfully mercurial performer, and the far-from-fading Irene’s one-liners are accompanied by a delicious “what is she going to do next” vibe when it comes to basic stage movement. “I love you all, but God, I wish I was in the city, in a hotel room, learning lines right now,” she says, as the upstate sojourn goes awry. Being a star, she says, “costs money. Bryan Cranston doesn’t have to go to the salon. He just rolls out of bed and gets the part.”
There is a tug in the moment when she tries to buy William’s love back, literally offering to buy him a Porsche, and then claiming—wrongly—he is “fucking a Black girl” out of guilt that he has only fucked white women. She is wrong about that he tells her, and heads off to see Nina one final time.
Three years later—in Samuel’s study—everything and nothing has changed. The tragedy of The Seagull comes to the fore, as it must, in the midst of merry games being played. But the audience has to work, too hard really, to meet the production in that sombre moment. The snarks, lust, and one-liners have fallen away, but the boisterous comedy of the play still rings in the air.
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