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Vol. LXII, No. 20
 
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
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Music/Theater

(Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

IN THE HAMPTONS: Maria Tucci plays Maria in Emily Mann’s “A Seagull in the Hamptons,” which is freely adapted from Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” with Brian Murray as her brother Nicholas. The world premiere adaptation at McCarter Theatre Center (91 University Place, Princeton) runs through June 8. For tickets, call (609) 258-2787 or online at www.mccarter.org.

Emily Mann’s “Seagull” Settles in 21st Century Long Island In Adaptation Full of Chekhovian Yearning, Despair, Humor

Donald Gilpin

There’s nothing to do … Oh, my … All this love … all this painful love …” exclaims the local doctor, who has just served once again as confidant to a love-struck young woman, who is yearning for an unattainable young man, who will soon be suffering his own unrequited love.

Whether it’s Anton Chekhov’s country estate amidst the tired aristocracy in the last decades of czarist Russia or Emily Mann’s present-day beachfront Long Island mansion in a world of restless New York writers and actors, it’s the often humorous, hopelessly frustrating and poignant travails of the human heart that take center stage for close examination.

Chekhov’s The Seagull (1895) was the first of his four great plays. Ms. Mann previously directed The Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya at McCarter, writing her own adaptations of the latter two. Her world premiere A Seagull in the Hamptons, freely adapted and directed by Ms. Mann and running through June 8 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, sets the action in the fashionable Hamptons in the present. It also thoroughly modernizes the dialogue and the characters.

In an interview, Ms. Mann explained her inspiration to create A Seagull in the Hamptons: “These beautiful, simple, completely true and real characters, they were true then; they’re true now. Wherever or whenever you set this play, you will find the truth in it, because that was Chekhov’s genius. I also wanted to blow off the dust that has covered up the fun, the humor, and all the deep, deep drama of his work and be simple and alive and now. That is what he wanted when he wrote it. If I see another of these Seagull’s that doesn’t get a laugh and everyone’s in a corset, I’m going to scream. Chekhov understood the humor in everyday misery. Everyday joy. Theater people revere him because he was the ultimate humanist.”

A Seagull in the Hamptons offers a lively, compelling character drama, both humorous and moving in its depiction of the passions and desperation of the New York elite at their Long Island country estate. Ms. Mann and company have successfully cleared off the dust and brought this play across the 110–year gap from the 1890s to the present. The two and a half hour running time, including four acts with one intermission, passes quickly. Ms. Mann’s adaptations never seem forced or artificial. This adaptation bears powerful witness to the universality of Chekhov’s world and the characters he so lovingly, honestly and unflinchingly created.

Crucial to the success of this endeavor is: 1) the extraordinarily high-powered, ten-member ensemble and 2) Eugene Lee’s remarkable set design, expertly complemented by Jane Cox’s lighting and Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s finely detailed costume designs, that transports the audience right to the Long Island beach, complete with copious sand, sea breezes, and a perfect model mansion in the distance.

“A Seagull in the Hamptons,” will run through June 8 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. For information call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org.

This Seagull does at times fall short when a certain imbalance in focus occurs. The older generation here — led by Maria Tucci as the aging actress Maria, past her prime; Brian Murray as her brother Nicholas, retired from his law firm and declining in health; and Larry Pine as the wise and detached doctor — dominates the proceedings. These are complex, three-dimensional characters played by formidable, seasoned actors who know how to command the stage.

When Alex (Stark Sands), troubled college-dropout son of Maria, rants about his endeavors in playwriting and the need for a new, revolutionary theater, or when he proclaims anger at his mother or his undying love for Nina ( Morena Baccarin), it is difficult to sympathize. His complaints about his mother, whose affection he craves, are more annoying than affecting. Even when he later confronts the despair of lost love and his frustrations with writing, he sounds less like a tragic roma nt ic hero than a spoiled adolescent who needs to get a job or go back and finish school. In Chekhov’s early productions of The Seagull, in the context of his new approach to realism in theater and his groundbreaking innovations with Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theater, this protagonist’s speeches on the decline of traditional theater and the need for something new would have resonated far more tellingly than do the speeches of Ms. Mann’s Alex.

A Seagull in the Hamptons is certainly about love, in particular the frustrations of unrequited love, and it is also about how, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” But it is also a play about the arts of writing and theatre and how those arts shape the lives of humans who dedicate their lives to them.

As Seagull opens, Alex has written a play that he will present for his mother, his uncle, and their friends, including her latest paramour Philip (David Andrew Macdonald), a writer of some renown. Alex’s beloved Nina plays the leading role in this highly intellectual and symbolic drama, but, in response to his narcissistic mother’s interruptions, the petulant Alex terminates his play after the opening lines and departs in a fury.

The event, however, has given Philip and Nina the occasion for a meeting that sparks later passionate encounters, deeply disturbing to both Alex and Maria. Meanwhile, as everyone complains and no one wants to hear about anyone else’s problems, the doctor Ben observes all and continues his own long-term secret relationship with Paula (Jacqueline Antaraman), the unhappy wife of Lorenzo (Daniel Oreskes), the much abused and chronically ill-tempered caretaker and cook. Their daughter Milly (Laura Heisler) brings more misery to the proceedings with her dark attire, somber demeanor, her addiction to alcohol and her painfully unrequited love for Alex. She marries Harold (Matthew Maher), a slow-witted local school teacher, during the two years that pass between the third and fourth acts, and her life becomes even more miserable, if possible, than before.

Mr. Murray and Ms Tucci as brother and sister, aging aristocrats, capture the essence of Chekhov’s sad, frustrated world. Elegantly dressed with ascot, double-breasted blazer, white pants, gin and tonic in hand, he’s retired from his law practice, mostly given up on his struggle to make meaning of his life, but still eager to deliver brief perorations as he reminisces or weighs in on the conflicts of others’ lives. She’s still engaged in the struggle, trying to play the role of grande dame of the theatre, holding on desperately to her womanizing younger lover, doing her best to love her troubled son, but never getting past her own ego to meet his needs.

Mr. Pine’s long-faced, sane and sympathetic doctor — Chekhov himself was a physician and prided himself on bringing a scientific objectivity to his perspective on his characters and their situations — is the observer, mostly able to remain rational and removed from the agonies of the love-struck masses, as he provides the audience with some perspective from which to assess the tragedy and comedy of this human spectacle.

Ms. Baccarin’s scintillating Nina appears first in a bright yellow sun dress — strikingly charming, a ray of sunshine in the midst of the gloomy contingent. It is not surprising that she should be a romantic force to disrupt the lives of first Alex, then Philip, with spin-off repercussions for Maria and the entire group. Nor is it surprising that she should ultimately, like the dead seagull to which she is compared, fall victim to the cruel selfishness of this world.

Less engaging are Alex and Milly. Both characters are less than appealing in both 1895 and 2008 texts, and, as embodied here by Ms. Heisler and Mr. Sands, they do not win much audience compassion or concern for their sad plights. Mr. Macdonald effectively portrays the philandering writer, urbane and untrustworthy, and Mr. Oreskes, Ms. Antaramian and Mr. Maher create superbly passionate, fully developed supporting characters.

“All I wanted,” Chekhov wrote, “was to say honestly to people: ‘Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are!’ The important thing is that people should realize that, for when they do, they will most certainly create another and better life for themselves.”

In The Seagull and his three other great plays, Chekhov made that powerful statement more than 100 years ago. Emily Mann, her dynamic ensemble and inspired production team deliver Chekhov’s message with refreshingly up-to-date affection and humor in A Seagull in the Hamptons.

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