Review by Jacquelin Hipes
While it does not add anything new to Chekhov’s classic play, Michael Mayer’s The Seagull serves as a well-acted and faithfully reproduced iteration. Mismatched passions and ambivalence tangle together over the course of several years at a lakeside country estate, frequented by the aging actress Irina (Annette Bening) and her lover, the renowned writer Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll). Her son Konstantin (Billy Howle) lives at the estate year-round with his uncle (Brian Dennehy), writing plays that he hopes will one day bring him some measure of esteem in Moscow. He’s also in love with Nina (Saoirse Ronan), a young woman who lives nearby and often performs in his plays.
The relationship between mother and son is strained, to say the least. Irina’s aloof indifference towards his latest play—a production heavy on symbolism and gloom—causes Konstantin to call things off mid-performance and avoid the house. While his depression concerns Masha (Elizabeth Moss), the daughter of the estate’s caretakers whose love for Konstantin goes unrequited, it barely ruffles Nina. Instead, she becomes infatuated with Boris and his reputation. Unsurprisingly the more entangled the romantic attachments get, the more heightened the pitch of drama inside the house becomes as well.
The Seagull plays out traditionally: the more shocking developments, like an attempted suicide, still take place off-camera and the setting remains an intimate, period-appropriate one. There is no mélange of Russian accents to contend with, although perhaps there are purists who would prefer not to hear generically American voices in a Russian play. Its confluence of love triangles might suggest a romantic drama, although the themes are much grander. Each failed or failing relationship reveals the insecurities and desires of those involved. What Nina, or Konstantin, or any of the others desire in a lover directly reflects their expectations from life itself; when affection isn’t reciprocated, it can have consequences more disastrous than a broken heart.
With little to add onto Checkhov’s original story, it’s in the performances that this version of The Seagull distinguishes itself. Bening’s former star rules the visiting group with aristocratic gusto; her calculated cluelessness brings laughter at the expense of her son and others, the perfect picture of a mother more concerned with her own spotlight than the happiness of her child. Elizabeth Moss also capitalizes on the humor of an admittedly dark tale. Masha haunts the home in all-black ensembles, a mourning gown for the love Konstantin never returned, her unhappiness is tempered by wry self-awareness lacking in other characters. Ronan also does well as the ingénue Nina, wide-eyed and breathily voiced. In comparison Stoll somewhat disappoints, his Trigorin neither gullible nor beguiling enough to believable fall for Nina’s flattery.
Admirers of Russian literature will no doubt find themselves pleased with this latest adaptation of Chekhov’s work. Mayer presents the material with a quiet, restrained beauty bolstered by a strong ensemble more than capable of navigating the play’s emotional nuances to pleasing results.