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Howard Kissel

The Cultural Tourist

Daily News Blogs


The Seagull

October 15, 2008


One of the inevitable, painful consequences of a lifetime in theater criticism is a fear of Chekhov.


Not Chekhov the great writer, the man who managed, in the midst of a career as a country doctor, to write hundreds of short stories and short plays as well as four great plays that describe “the human condition” as profoundly as anyone ever has.


No, I mean Chekhov the victim of innumerable directors and actors who replace his comedy with pseudo-profundity, which makes these plays almost unbearable to sit through. No one was more aware of this problem than Chekhov himself, who described Stanislavski’s production of “The Seagull” as “gloomier than gloom” rather than the comedy he thought he had written.


That is why no one who loves the theater can afford to miss the extraordinary “Seagull” that director Ian Rickson mounted for London’s Royal Court Theater, which is at the Walter Kerr Theater until Dec. 21. The cast includes Kristin Scott Thomas and Peter Sarsgaard.


Rickson’s understanding of the importance of the comedy is apparent in the first few minutes of this spellbinding production. The memorable opening of the play, when Masha is asked, “Why do you always wear black?” and the young woman replies, “Because I am in mourning for my life” is generally intoned with a heaviness that sets the mood for the whole evening. But Zoe Kazan, who plays Masha, makes us see the line as a reflection of her pretention and vanity rather than any profundity.

We are immediately in Chekhov’s world.


The sardonic pathos of this world is brilliantly limned in Christopher Hampton’s marvelous new translation. I suspect liberties have been taken here and there, but I consider that a minor sin when an adaptation can make an 1895 play seem as immediate as Hampton’s does.


Too often Chekhov is presented as if all the characters know the Revolution is not far off and they are indeed in mourning for their lives. Whatever premonitions Chekhov or his characters have of the unrest in Russia are surely secondary to their hopeless foolishness about themselves. The languor that infects most Chekhov productions is a kind of fog that prevents us from seeing the comedy at the heart of most of his plays.


The four great plays (“Seagull,” “Uncle Vanya,” “Three Sisters” and “Cherry Orchard”) are indeed the kin of the many little farces he wrote, which seldom are seen anywhere but acting classes. (An early instance of Paul Newman’s generosity, and I heard about this over 40 years ago, long before he was a superstar, was that he gave an actor named Michael Strong $10,000 — a considerable sum back then — so he could film his performance in such a farcical one-act, “The Dangers of Smoking Tobacco” to use as an audition piece in Hollywood.)


The best productions I have seen (there aren’t many) are the ones that recognize this kinship and find the humor, which is abundant.  …


When Chekhov works, you see the sadness beneath the comedy. That is certainly true in Kristin Scott Thomas’s arrogant, self-satisfied behavior as Mme Arkadina. She projects a sharp intelligence that only intensifies the sadness of her lack of self-awareness.

The role of her lover, Trigorin, is especially difficult because much of the time he seems to be a blank. But Peter Sarsgaard conveys a smugness that undercuts his world-weariness and intensifies the selfishness of his actions. Here is evil made entirely comprehensible.


Some have complained about the Britishness of this production. The good thing about Brits doing Chekhov is that they understand the class element, which is always significant.


In the year and a half I have been doing this blog I have generally refrained from commenting on the theater because I did not want to appear to be second-guessing my successor as theater critic at the News, Joe Dziemianowicz, in the way that my predecessor used a weekly column to second-guess me.

In this case I am simply seconding Joe’s enthusiasm, and I would consider myself derelict in my duties not urging people to see so definitive a production.


To read the complete article, please click on the following link: http://www.nydailynews.com/blogs/culture/2008/10/the-seagull.html


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