Broadway’s ‘The Seagull’ soars with Kristen Scott Thomas

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‘The play fell flat and flopped with a bang. The audience was bewildered.... The performances were vile and stupid.’

This is how Chekhov described the opening night of ‘The Seagull’ to his younger brother in 1896. A subsequent production by Stanislavsky demonstrated that the play could indeed be a great success, but the delicate tragicomic chemistry of the work is notoriously easy to get wrong. Most ‘Seagulls’ are out-and-out turkeys.

The Royal Court Theatre production at New York’s Walter Kerr Theatre — probably Broadway’s most acclaimed drama this fall — gets enough of the play right for us to overlook some of the shortcomings. But then with actresses this vivid it’s easy to forgive the blurriness of the male leads.

The ensemble, under the direction of Ian Rickson, is encouraged to take its languorous time. Nothing is rushed; nothing is disconnected from feeling. The first act moves sluggishly as a result, but the audience’s patience is richly rewarded.


The production, which relies on Christopher Hampton’s crisp translation, may not be the most beautifully choreographed — there’s a horizontal quality to the blocking that can grow as monotonous as a diorama — but false notes are kept to an absolute minimum.

Kristen Scott Thomas, with her marvelous dry-Bordeaux presence, plays Arkadina, the self-involved stage diva who places career and romance over her son Konstantin (Mackenzie Crook), a struggling writer futilely in love with Nina (Carey Mulligan), an aspiring actress who’s in la-la land about what it means to be a famous artist.

Thomas’ Arkadina, attired to flaunt her well-preserved figure, can’t be in a room without aggressively pursuing applause; if she’s not the center of attention even for a minute, she paces about like a panther set loose in a drawing room. The humor of her portrayal is hearty, but its source is a deep well of anger and guilt. This is no light caricature, but a psychological study of a narcissist who senses that life will cheat her if she doesn’t stay alert and fight to maintain her fair share.

There are so many wonderful throwaway moments in Thomas’ performance, but the one that sums up Arkadina’s brand of selfishness occurs when she rushes to give her collapsed older brother, Sorin (Peter Wight), a glass of water yet takes the first giant gulp herself.

Mulligan’s Nina is a tear-streaked apparition of porcelain beauty. It’s easy to see see why Konstantin feels as though his happiness depends entirely on her love. When she performs in the curiously surreal play he has written, she gives his words a charge of unexpected humanity. The anti-naturalistic style, over the top though it can be, reveals a universal pathos.

This is the first production I’ve encountered that doesn’t treat Konstantin’s dramatic experiment as an avant-garde joke — and the reward is a lovely echo of meaning in the final act, which challenges Chekhov’s classification of the play as a comedy. (The gentle pile-up of failure and loss isn’t usually thought of as a laughing matter.)

Crook isn’t able to make psychological sense of Konstantin’s suicidal trajectory — I’ve yet to see an actor figure out the Oedipal riddle of this stymied young man. Yet his scrawny, withdrawn appearance — the guy looks as though he lost his appetite years ago and has subsisted ever since on coffee and cigarettes -- suggests his aggrieved dilemma: How can he stomach food with his mother and her frivolously arty friends looking down on him all the time, as he likes to believe?

Peter Sarsgaard plays Trigorin, the bestselling author Arkadina wants to be sure doesn’t leave her for Nina. He wanders about Sorin’s lakefront country estate — impressionistically realized with dilapidated touches by set designer Hildegard Bechtler, who also did the sumptuous costumes — jotting down thoughts for stories he feels compelled to compulsively write.

The problem with Sarsgaard’s interpretation is that he turns Trigorin into such a doughy character. Chekhov complained in a letter about the way an actor playing this part ‘walked and talked like a paralytic,’ blandly interpreting the role to be that of a man who lacks a ‘will of his own.’

There are, of course, textual grounds for such an approach, but the character has to be able to lure others with his literary fixations and locked-up sympathies. For a guy who leaves quite a bit of destruction in his wake, Sarsgaard’s Trigorin seems way too limp.

Yet even if the men are largely eclipsed by the women onstage (Zoe Kazan’s Masha and Ann Dowd’s Polina are also sharply brought into focus), this ‘Seagull’ still manages to be the most heartbreaking one I’ve encountered. Chekhov’s vision may be more somberly delivered than usual, but the soul-salving laughter hasn’t been banished.

— Charles McNulty