For three brief, captivating, unforgettable hours, it is possible to see what an American national theater might have been if Hollywood and New York were in the same place. If, as in London, our most gifted actors were not geographically torn between making movies and making theater, we might have seasons full of consummate productions like "The Seagull" that the free New York Shakespeare Festival officially opened Friday night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.
For now, except for the tantalizing hint of a Broadway transfer, the chosen and/or persistent few have the luxury and pleasure of the most satisfying, daring and confident local Chekhov production in decades.
This "Seagull," which runs through Aug. 26, unfolds with the wit, grace and reinvigorated leadership of Mike Nichols, the audacious Shakespeare-infused conversational flair of adapter Tom Stoppard and a heady cast so grounded in self-challenging, playful intelligence to produce perhaps the ultimate in theater contradictions: an exquisitely integrated ensemble of star turns.
The event will make the theater books as the return of Meryl Streep after 20 years, especially if the experience persuades her to stay.
Certainly, the cast--including Kevin Kline, Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, John Goodman, Marcia Gay Harden, Stephen Spinella, Larry Pine and Debra Monk--appears as delighted as the audiences with the high-profile, high-spirited escapade.
How wonderful to have Streep back in a world where female characters are allowed to get more fascinating as they age.
And how funny--in all sorts of poignant ways--to find these particular actors exchanging insights and ironies about the blinding seductiveness of fame, the tyranny of competition, the conflicts between conventional theater and the inspirational, not to mention foolish, idealism of the new.
The arch symbolism and the shameless gun-shot melodramatics of Chekhov' s most awkwardly symbol-heavy play are handled with an easygoing, naturalistic, almost improvisatory sense of everyday enjoyment and agony.
Nichols, who stomped his star-vehicle "Waiting for Godot" into pop-culture senselessness in 1988, gives his actors plenty of chance to show off. With sets and costumes by the British master of magical humanism, Bob Crowley, the park stage has been transformed into a realistic, enchanted 1895 Russian country estate, with plenty of trees and mud, a glimpse of a live horse, a visceral sense of the lake and not so much furniture as to clash with Chekhov's genius for implication.
Streep makes a marvelous, monstrous Arkadina, waving her expressive arms and snarling her envy as the aging diva who cannot bother to conceal her contempt for her would-be playwright son.
Streep's Arkadina actually does a decent cartwheel to show her girlish stamina, and adorably tries to hide the effect on her knees.
Just when we think this is going to be a one-note triumph, however, Streep goes eerily translucent and lets us see the groveling and the vanity at war under her skin.
Kline, a theater true-heart who keeps returning to the stage, makes a rigorously selfish, unusually erotic Trigorin, the famous writer who trifles with Portman's Nina, the aspiring actress, for fun and literary material--even after being rolled on the rug by Streep's desperate Arkadina.
The major surprises come from Portman, whose Nina transforms with astonishing lyricism from the girl with ambition to Chekhov's most difficult symbol of destruction.
Hoffman, already one of the most versatile actors of his generation, dives fearlessly into the role of Konstantin, usually played by actors who look like a young Kline.
Looking instead like some bloated slacker's idea of Prince Valiant, Hoffman makes himself a romantic tragic figure while finding Chekhov's improbable balance between idealism in the arts and a satire of that idealism.
Walken, no stranger to this stage, is an equally unpredictable choice to play Sorin, the diva's dying older brother, who, thanks to Walken's peculiar and irresistible jazz rhythm, includes singing and dancing in Sorin's list of things he never will enjoy in his disappointed life.
Harden practically runs off with the night as Masha, a hard-driving, hard-smoking, lovelorn depressive who ends up with the deadly schoolteacher, played with hilariously pathetic strength by Spinella.
Pine, the evening's true Chekhov specialist, makes the most from the least multifaceted of Chekhov's doctor characters.
Goodman makes a virtuosic, unbearable fool out of the small but important part of the farm manager, while Monk is underutilized, but welcome, as the vulgarian's bored wife.
May they all be available, immediately, for Broadway.
"The Seagull." By Anton Chekhov, new version by Tom Stoppard, directed by Mike Nichols. Sets and costumes by Bob Crowley, lights by Jennifer Tipton. New York Shakespeare Festival, Delacorte Theater, Central Park. Through Aug. 26.
Linda Winer is the theater critic for Newsday, a Tribune company.