Aside from the problem of which translation from the Russian to use, the thorny problem with American productions of the plays of playwright Anton Chekhov is how to deal with the fact that the author himself called them comedies but everyone from his early director Konstantin Stanislavski on has seen them as tragedies.
Playwright Thomas Bradshaw has neatly solved both problems: in his new adaptation renamed The Seagull/Woodstock, NY which recasts the play as an updated modern comedy, he also made the play a very funny satire of today’s culture vultures, thespians and the literati. His version in which all of the names have been Anglicized makes Chekhov’s turn-of-the-last century play very accessible to contemporary audiences which is not often the case with Chekhov adaptations – without making drastic changes. In doing so, it makes whatever parody there was in the original of theater and literary icons of Chekhov’s time now understandable to today’s audiences due to updated references they can recognize.
In his third New Group production with director Scott Elliott at the helm and a cast led by Parker Posey, the film star dubbed affectionately as “Queen of the Indies,” Bradshaw has not been as shocking or confrontational as in many of his previous plays. However, he has included several contemporary topics like racism inherent in the new casting and has made the sexual content much more explicit but not uncomfortably so as in his earlier plays. A discussion of masturbation may make some theatergoers uncomfortable but it is all talk rather than action.
In depicting Chekhov’s group of actors, writers and their hangers-on now visiting a country house in the Catskills, he skewers the sort of name dropping tespians who talk of Gwyneth (Paltrow), Audra (McDonald), Sutton (Foster), Alex Baldwin and Elizabeth Moss. These theater people babble about the plays by Arthur Miller, Tracy Letts, Terence McNally, Sam Shepard and Paula Vogel and their performances in an all-female version of True West, being a replacement in August: Osage County, being lit beautifully while being nude in Frankie and Johnnie in the Claire de Lune, a regional production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and preparing for Moliere’s Tartuffe. They quote The New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Magazine and reviews in the New York Times. A bestselling writer is sarcastically referred to as “Well here comes Philip Roth now.” (The only writer mentioned or implied in the original was Ivan Turgenev, not much read in the US anymore.)
Bradshaw’s version is extremely faithful to the original but updates the references as well as the casting. The self-absorbed Irene (Irina Nikolaevna Arkadina in the original), a famous stage actress with a Tony Award but in need of another (“theater famous, but not famous, famous”) arrives with her life partner, the African American novelist William (Boris Trigorin), at the Woodstock country home of her best friend Samuel (her brother Sorin in the original). Here he is a gay retired lawyer who is beginning to show his age. Her son Kevin (Konstantin), a young writer, is also there for the summer and he has fallen in love with aspiring actress Nina, a biracial young woman with a white father and a deceased black mother, who lives on the adjoining estate.
In the first act, desperate for his mother’s approval, Kevin stages a one- woman play with Nina, not the expressionistic poetic one of the original but a theater of the absurd exercise in breaking the fourth wall. In it, dressed only in a bathrobe, Nina talks directly to the audience made up of Irene and Samuel’s local friends which include Dr. Dean (Dr. Dorn), a brain surgeon, and Darren and Pauline (Shamraev and Polina) and their daughter Sasha (Masha) who also have an estate nearby. However, it is not Irene’s kind of commercial theater and the evening does not end very well. The disastrous event has repercussions for the rest of the play. The ending which is usually taken as tragedy is here undercut by the other characters laughing uproariously over a hilarious game of Scrabble that has gotten out of control, leaving us on a comic note.
However, as in Chekhov, who may have meant comedy as the “human comedy,” everyone is in love with the wrong person. Kevin is in love with Nina who is infatuated with William whom she has read but not met before. Sasha is head over heels in love with Kevin who doesn’t even notice her while her faithful swain Mark (Medvedenko), a local teacher, would die for her but she has only scorn for him. Irene is attached by the hip to the promiscuous William who promptly falls in love with the younger Nina which is obvious to all. And if that were not enough Paulina wants to reopen an ended affair with Dean that he is not encouraging about beginning again. Aging Samuel bemoans his fate that although he is still attracted to eery man he meets, he no longer has any takers. As Shakespeare’s Puck might have said, “What fools these mortals be!”
Changing the race of William and Nina, allows Bradshaw to bring in the current hot topic of race relations, not touched on in Chekhov. When the African American William (who has discovered that he is 36% European from a DNA test) declares that “interracial children are the glue that will one day bond our sad, broken country,” the biracial Nina disagrees saying that “I think Black people should stick together.” When it is pointed out to Nina that she is seeing the white Kevin, she announces that it is just a summer fling and she plans to settle down with a Black man. Irene taunts William with the fact that his attraction to Nina may be as a result of his guilt over having always been with white women in the past. Whether any of this is Bradshaw’s personal beliefs is not made clear.
The direction by The New Group’s artistic director Scott Elliott, who has previously directed Bradshaw’s plays Intimacy and Burning, is smooth and entertaining making all of these posers self-deluded as to their success and their characters. Posey is amusing as the acerbic, catty and judgmental Irene who is not as famous as she thinks and is not above manipulating her friends and family to her wishes. While not playing Irene as the grand dame she is sometimes portrayed as, Posey is playing a woman used to a great deal of attention in her professional life as well as among her friends. Returning to the New York theater for the first time since the 2005 revival of Hurlyburly, she commands the stage as though she had never left it. Aleyse Shannon is lovely as the emerging Nina who finds that life’s disillusionments dissipate one’s happiness.
Nat Wolff’s Kevin, the young writer who has only contempt for his elders, seems a bit too whiny and immature but this helps to explain Nina’s ultimate rejection of him. As William, the commercially successful writer who is not a critic’s darling, Ato Essandoh has the same problem that other actors have had with the role of Trigorin: is Chekhov laughing at him or with him? Bradshaw does not make his view any clearer. As the insufferably disagreeable and miserly Darren, Daniel Oreskes is effective as is Amy Stiller as Pauline his put-upon wife. As their unhappy daughter Sasha, Hari Nef is convincing as a sharp tongued young woman who does not see any solution to her romantic problems.
Monologist David Cale as the aging Samuel gives a fine portrait of someone who is aware of his diminishing powers. As the doctor, Bill Sage’s role seems somewhat shrunken from the original and this allows him to make very little impression. Patrick Foley as Mark, Sasha’s loyal swain and later husband, is a believable study in co-dependency.
Derek McLane’s minimal setting with its varying combinations of chairs and tables before a red curtain is successful in suggesting the four needed sets: a small outdoor theater, the backyard of William’s house, his kitchen and his library. The lighting by Cha See helps turn the stage into the four different locations. Qween Jean’s chic costumes establish that these are people of means, though they complain about how little they have.
While most new American translations of Chekhov tend to simply update the language with the use of contemporary vernacular, Thomas Bradshaw in his The Seagull/Woodstock, NY has also created a satire of self-deceived people who talk a great deal about contemporary culture but do little to forward it. The play is both funny and revealing of character while sticking closely to Chekhov’s original plotting. The cast of ten led by Parker Posey appears to be living their roles, not just playing them. Director Scott Elliott appears to be one of the best interpreters of the work of Thomas Bradshaw who here reworking Chekhov’s play is not as confrontational has he has been in his own plays.
The Seagull/Woodstock, NY (extended through April 9, 2023)
The New Group
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.thenewgroup.org
Running time: two hours and 40 minutes including one intermission