With so many Chekhov adaptations on the market, it’s fair to wonder whether the Dramatists Guild requires playwrights to crank them out as a condition of membership.
If so, “The Seagull” is apparently the recommended source — appearing more often than “The Cherry Orchard,” “Three Sisters” and “Uncle Vanya” combined. The 1896 tragicomedy about the hopelessness of love and theater has set off a flock of homages and spoofs, often in one booby-trapped package.
That most of the adaptations don’t stick doesn’t matter; since opening night, little has been heard from “Drowning Crow,” “Stupid ____ Bird,” “A Seagull in the Hamptons” or even “The Notebook of Trigorin,” Tennessee Williams’s 1981 stab. What counts, at least as far as selling the show is concerned, is the mash-up of a classic title with a modern sensibility, so that troikas and patronyms become sports cars and upspeak.
The first question to ask in approaching these rehashes is: Do they make any sense if you don’t know the source? The second question is: Do they add any worth if you do?
“The Seagull/Woodstock, NY,” Thomas Bradshaw’s entry in the reincarnation sweepstakes, clears the first bar, with maybe a trailing foot, in a New Group production that opened on Tuesday at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Airlifting the story from a 19th-century Russian estate to a 21st-century Catskills compound makes sense, and Chekhov’s artsy, spoiled, lovestruck characters are more or less at home in a world of soy milk, Prada sneakers and pans in The New York Times.
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These characters, mostly renamed with English soundalikes, constellate pretty much as the original 10 did. (Some workers on the estate have apparently been fired.) Their North Star, Irene, played by Parker Posey, is a moderately successful and immoderately self-involved actress who is “theater famous, not famous famous.” Posey, that former indie “it girl,” is perfectly cast as a woman who has won one Tony but can say with light sincerity, “I do need another one.”
Along with her lover, the middlebrow novelist William (Ato Essandoh), Irene has returned from the city to visit her ailing friend, Samuel (David Cale), and her sensitive yet untalented son, Kevin (Nat Wolff). Kevin is in love with Nina (Aleyse Shannon), a neighbor’s daughter who stars in the play he plans to present to the assembled company. But Nina is in love with William, while another family adjunct, Sasha (Hari Nef), is in love with Kevin.
There are yet more triangles and quadrilaterals of affection, not always clearly mapped in Bradshaw’s vigorous trimming of the text. (Even so, Scott Elliott’s production is a bit pokey, running 2 hours and 35 minutes.) But you do get the gist: Everyone wants someone they cannot have, and privilege breeds discontent.
Whether Bradshaw’s “Seagull” also passes the second test for such adaptations — does the new version add any value beyond what the original offers? — may depend on whether you admire his work in the first place. His kind of theater, he has said, is about asking audiences to “question their own reactions” even if they are “outraged” as a result. This he has faithfully done in plays like “Fulfillment,” “Intimacy,” and “Burning,” which depict, often explicitly, incest, pornography, scatology and sadomasochism.
There’s a lot of that in his “Seagull” too. Kevin’s ridiculous play — in the Chekhov a gassy symbolist fantasy — is more literally gassy here, as Nina extols the virtues of public farting. Its climax comes when, having asked audience members to share their “most recent masturbation experience,” she rewards the best answer with the chance to watch hers. With unusual delicacy for a Bradshaw play, this is staged in a tub behind a curtain.
But mostly he translates the bad behavior of Chekhov’s characters to snark instead of smut. Take the famous opening salvo of the original “Seagull,” in which Masha is asked by Medvedenko, the poor schoolteacher who loves her, why she dresses all in black. Her ruefully funny answer — “I’m in mourning for my life” — becomes something merely nasty when Sasha, as she is now called, tells the rechristened Mark (Patrick Foley), “at least I don’t buy my clothes at Walmart.”
If the play, with all its cattiness and cruelty, at times feels like “Mean Girls Goes to Camp,” it’s not always clear where the meanness is coming from. When Sasha or Irene cut someone down, as they frequently do with generous heaps of obscenity, Nef and Posey subtly show us that they’re mostly self-medicating with insults.
But other times it seems as if no one, or perhaps just the popular yet perennially panned Bradshaw, is behind the rancor. It’s no accident that the names of the holies casually sideswiped in the rush of dialogue are mostly theatrical: Arthur Miller, Tracy Letts, “How I Learned to Drive,” Terrence McNally, Nora Ephron and Janet McTeer in an “all-female ‘True West.’”
Grinding axes can be funny, and several times I caught myself guffawing in public, then regretting it privately. Though that’s probably just where Bradshaw wants us, the easy laughs don’t really provide added value; over time, they’re more subtractive.
But then two things happen.
One is that the play opens a new line of inquiry as Nina (who is biracial) and William (who is multiracial) explore the way identity inflects their art and ambition. “Interracial children are the glue that will one day bond our sad, broken country,” William says. To which Nina responds flirtatiously, “I don’t know. I think Black people should stick together.”
This is the kind of alteration that enhances the original, giving a familiar relationship a different dimension.
And then in its second half, the play changes again. Instead of looting or even building on Chekhov, it is drawn into the immense depth of his writing and becomes, at least fitfully, “The Seagull” itself. The tender scene in which Irene redresses, in both senses, her son’s wounds — he’s tried to kill himself — works exactly as it always does, no matter that it involves a conversational detour to P.S. 122. And the play’s infallible final gesture, here involving rude Scrabble instead of bingo, once again doesn’t fail.
Still, I’m left to wonder whether a few moments of enhanced relevance are worth the bother of a comprehensive and often counterproductive update. Couldn’t this cast have pulled off the standard edition? And pulled it off more smoothly, without the staging longueurs occasioned by the rough text and the stop-and-go direction? (But do keep the fabulous contemporary clothing by Qween Jean.)
Short of fulfilling a union requirement, there’s no reason for playwrights to keep pickpocketing Chekhov. Though as I write that I realize: That’s what we all do anyway.
The Seagull/Woodstock, NY
Through April 9 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, Manhattan; thenewgroup.org. Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes.