Toward the end of the lengthy first act of Classic Stage Company’s production of Chekhov’s The Seagull, Dianne Wiest’s Arkadina is asked by her suicidal son Treplev (Ryan O’Nan) to change the bandage on his head. It’s an important moment in a play stuffed with imminently actable moments, both large and small, and the temptation is to linger over them, even though this means slowing down momentum and spoiling the shape of the drama. As Arkadina, a famed, aging actress, changes her son’s bandages, everything grinds to an almost dream-like halt; she reacts to the wound in his head with a quiet, “Oh my God,” and later breaks down in very upsetting tears. Maybe Wiest needed all the time she took unraveling the bandages in order to get to this extreme emotion, but the fact remains that this choice, and several other acting/directorial choices in this production, smack of exploration in the rehearsal room; in performance it feels like self-indulgence. At the end, O’Nan’s Treplev similarly takes an incredibly long time pondering his lost life in near-silence, and while he is effective, the outlines of his character and the play begin to blur in actorly self-exploration.
The director, Viacheslav Dolgachev, was a respected leading light at the Moscow Art Theatre, and he’s also an acting teacher. Dolgachev had his own company in Moscow and was able to rehearse for any period of time he wished, so it should come as no surprise that his production of The Seagull, made with mostly unfamiliar actors under a much shorter rehearsal period, should feel so amorphous and larval. The evocative set by Santo Loquasto, with its swaying curtains and seemingly decayed furnishings, only whets our appetite for a real production of this play — there’s a feeling of uncertainty, of neither here nor there, and the actors never make a cohesive whole, which is so essential for Chekhov.
Lately, The Seagull has been mainly a vehicle for the actress playing Arkadina, as it was for Meryl Streep in Central Park a few years ago. I remember little about that fabled production aside from Streep enlivening one of the smaller scenes with a cartwheel, after Arkadina boasted of her youth-like spirit. Wiest, who has played many a grand actress before and won awards for doing so, acts as if she’s hurt her back after Arkadina’s boast, which gets a laugh, but there’s not much humor in this performance, or in the production. If Wiest lingers too long in the major scene with her son, she rushes through the equally important seduction scene with her lover Trigorin (Alan Cumming), a famous writer, maybe because she knows how implausible they are as a couple.
Cumming is miscast, but rather fascinatingly depraved-looking as he swaggers and twitches and devours poor Nina (Kelli Garner). Garner can play Nina’s early scenes, and she looks delectably small and blond, but she can only try her best in the last tragic sequence. This is really a play about Nina, in the end, but only in the 70s Williamstown production, with a young, incandescent Blythe Danner, has it ever truly seemed so to me. (Thankfully, that production was recorded for posterity.) It’s fun to watch Wiest narrow her eyes, purse her lips and throw tantrums, just as it’ss fun to watch Cumming act like an absinthe-soaked artiste, but the meaning of this great, unruly play is lost while everyone thinks through their roles at such a slow pace.