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Theatre in Review: The Seagull/Woodstock, NY (The New Group)

Ato Essandoh, Aleyse Shannon. Photo: Monique Carboni

Whatever else you want to say about Thomas Bradshaw's contemporary gloss on Chekhov, Parker Posey is the funniest Arkadina you're ever likely to see. Known here as Irene, she is an actress of considerable note, at least in her own mind. Others aren't so sure. "She's theatre-famous, not famous-famous," sniffs a so-called friend. "She won a Tony," protests an admirer. "A while ago," adds the detractor. With friends like these, a lady needs a publicist and Irene is a master of self-promotion.

She is also an expert in the art of false modesty. Responding to a compliment about another performance, she announces, in her best red-carpet manner, "I didn't make you cry. It was the words of Tracy Letts." An Olympic-level name dropper, she loves to reminisce about the time she and Janet McTeer stormed the West End in an "an all-female True West." She was, she notes, compared to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who, "God rest his soul, was what they call an actor's actor. We had that in common." Of course you did, dear.

Balancing this outrageous study in starry self-adoration is Nat Wolff as Irene's son, Kevin, a would-be avant-garde playwright and director who longs for her approval and seethes whenever she comes too close. Fed up with hearing about Irene's self-described triumph in a certain revival, he snarls that Arthur Miller "wrote two good plays and The Crucible isn't one of them." Sublimating his matricidal fury, he lashes out the aesthetic status quo: "The American theatre only wants to see people sitting around a dining room table, slowly revealing secrets from the past. It's so artificial!" Whenever he and Posey are going at it, with occasional catty commentary from the supporting cast, The Seagull/Woodstock, NY resembles a kind of Off-Broadway edition of Terrence McNally's opening-night farce It's Only a Play.

Indeed, Posey often appears to be starring in her own sitcom, so avidly is she out for comic blood. But this is still The Seagull, updated to the present day with only middling success. It is most effective when focusing on William, Bradshaw's version of Trigorin -- here a novelist of note whose books feature entire chapters without punctuation -- and his seduction of Nina, the aspiring actress who Kevin idolizes. Rangy, nattily dressed, and working that killer smiler, Ato Essandoh gives William a casual, slow-burning charm that is clearly irresistible. If Aleyse Shannon initially seems a tad tough and practical as Nina, especially when giving Kevin notes about the excesses of his latest work, she convinces as the broken figure of Act IV, still obsessed with William and revealing her deep derangement only by degrees. She and Essandoh come closest to capturing the Russian playwright's point of view in a 21st-century context.

Indeed, everyone in the cast has his or her moments, beginning with Wolff, sidling up to a family friend, desperate for a few words of encouragement, and, later, upsetting his mother with a stunningly passionate kiss. David Cale strikes a lovely, melancholic figure as Samuel, Irene's ailing lifelong best friend and Kevin's de facto father, sadly aware that he has only a little time left. Hari Nef brims with Chekhovian melancholy as Sasha, who loves Kevin desperately but settles for a dead-end marriage to dullard schoolteacher Mark, accurately rendered by Patrick Foley. (Pouring out some hooch from a flask at ten in the morning, Sasha mutters, "Pretend it's a mimosa.") Also solid are Bill Sage as the genial town rake and Daniel Oreskes and Amy Stiller as a pair of alternately bitchy and obsequious hangers-on.

There's plenty of Russian-style discontent to draw on but The Seagull/Woodstock, NY rarely taps into it. Bradshaw has been conscientious about finding contemporary analogues for Chekhov's characters and situations, but their behavior often seems dictated by the mores of a previous century. The idea of Sasha marooned in the provinces and stuck in a dead-end marriage was surely more believable in 1896; her character needs more reimagination for today. Similarly, we are told that the bright promise of Nina's acting career has deteriorated, leaving her to make do in a series of August Wilson productions in regional theatres, a dire fate that would likely tempt many a young actress only three years out of college. Minus a few aluminum lawn chairs, even Derek McLane's set design -- a rough-planked stage backed by a blood-red curtain -- could serve for a traditional Seagull revival. Too often, the production seems neither here nor there.

Bradshaw, a professional provocateur -- among other things, his previous plays have featured a character ejaculating on stage and a teenage boy in a threesome with his adoptive fathers -- occasionally tries for shock effects. Kevin's performance piece, starring Nina, is an extended harangue about masturbation and farting, with a sidebar about the N word, but it's nothing Bradshaw hasn't done before and the effect is tired. (Nina presides over an audience participation sequence; the winner, William, is awarded a private view of her pleasuring herself in an onstage bathtub.) Race is brought up but not dwelled on at length. And Bradshaw can't restrain his fondness for easy gags: William, rolling around, pants down, in that bathtub with Nina, hears Irene calling for him. "I'm coming!" he shouts. You bet he is.

The leisurely pace of Elliott's production doesn't help, nor does a lengthy opening sequence in which the actors do warmup exercises, then urge us to sing and clap along to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young's "Our House." In a production where less would surely be more, such little indulgences push the running time to the two-hour-and-forty-five-minute point.

In contrast to McLane's set, the costumes by Qween Jean are wickedly accurate, especially Irena's peerlessly actress getups. Cha See provides some beautiful lighting looks, carving out the actors with precision as the shadows lengthen onstage. The sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen combines such necessary effects as a barking dog with musical selections including Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody."

Watching The Seagull/Woodstock, NY, it's hard not to see Bradshaw as another Kevin, sickened by staid, bourgeois theatre yet struggling to come with the antidote. Kevin, having become a published writer, lashes out at himself, insisting that his book is "a jumble of other voices." He adds, "Is there anything new anymore? Are there any new stories? New forms? Or is everything just a new spin on something old? A reinvention of the comfortable and familiar?" These are words to keep a playwright up at night, especially one who sets out to modernize a classic only to end up something neither especially modern nor terribly classic. Maybe next season we'll get that all-female True West -- David Barbour.

(28 February 2023)

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