Bird is the Word
Through Dec. 21, Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St. (betw. B’way & 8th Ave.), 212-239-6200; $25-$110.
Something about the handsome, enviably structured face of Kristin Scott Thomas, now reprising her Olivier Award-winning performance as Arkadina in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull on Broadway, seems designed to mislead. Arkadina is probably the most colorful and complex actress-character envisioned by any playwright, and the great virtue of Thomas’ performance is that her lean face is unfailingly empathy inducing, no matter what side of her we’re seeing. Thomas is then able to accent her moment by using her lithe body, which would appear to have been gently poured into Hildegarde Bechtler’s costumes.
Delicately, deliberately, Thomas communicates each shimmering, stammering aspect of Arkadina, but she never has one of the aspects contradict another. Rather, her performance is a case study of a woman wholly at an emotional remove from who she truly is on the inside—very much, if you will, an actress. In the presence of her son, the dark, troubled and ultimately suicidal Konstantin, played by the gaunt, goony Mackenzie Crook, Thomas’ Arkadina is maternal but never motherly—that would demand an investment of care considerably steeper than the Russian steppes. In the presence of her lover, the poet Trigorin, played rather shallowly by Peter Sarsgaard, Thomas can be kicky as a schoolgirl. Yet something about that face—that high forehead, those smallish eyes, that broad mouth—tells you that Arkadina knows full well how her relationship with the poet will end. How, indeed, all the relationships in Chekhov’s piece will fall tragically into place.
Nuance, you see, is the ethanol of a Chekhov play. In the century since the master’s death, there is still a reason why caffeine-driven college professors engage their students in debates over what is “seriocomic” and how it is to be played on stage. Ian Rickson’s direction of The Seagull, tautly adapted by Christopher Hampton, is often so shot through with nuance that it can be an absolute pleasure. For example, there’s the reliably inimitable performance of Zoe Kazan as Masha, burning in her unrequited love for Konstantin. At the same time, Rickson’s revival occasionally stumbles is in its pacing—by which I don’t mean it is uneven. Instead, it’s as if the director is unaware, at least until well into Act 2, that The Seagull needs doom and gloom to bubble beneath the Chekhovian mirth. I was so amused and diverted by the nuance of the actors’ performances that I almost forgot what melancholy fortunes await the characters. It’s a choice, but it seems to me in retrospect that the comic needed a little more serio.
The production elements, too, weirdly strafe the surface. The Seagull is lit a hair too darkly by Peter Mumford in Act 1 (even with the play beginning at dusk), so it becomes a strain to see all the subterranean feelings being otherwise expressed by the actors through inflections and body language. Then, in Act 2, the rustic and rather unattractive upstage wall is finally removed, unveiling a drawing room interior of peeling wallpaper and chipped walls that help to fill in many of the plotting blanks.
There is a temptation to compare this production of The Seagull to the most recent New York revival of the play—at off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company a few months ago. The most profound difference is all about age: Whereas Dianne Weist’s Arkadina at CSC body surfed wave after wave of arch narcissism, Thomas subsumes her vanity through spellbinding showmanship. Think of it this way: With Thomas’ long and dreamy figure, she is like a beautiful suit of worsted wool compared to the high-waisted Weist.
How sad, then, that Sarsgaard impresses so lightly. In the face of Thomas’ powerhouse performance as a woman unplugged from her own source of electricity, Sarsgaard, who also portrayed Trigorin in London, wafts through his scenes as if motored by air, his face obscured by a bushy beard. Perhaps the seriocomedy is hiding far beneath it.
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