Given how rarely the plays of Anton Chekhov are produced by South Florida theatre companies, it’s as typical as it is unfortunate that I’ve never seen “The Seagull” on a stage. My only experience with the Russian masterpiece has been Sidney Lumet’s faithful but static 1968 adaptation, with a head-slappingly miscast Simone Signoret in the lead role of the vainglorious actress and mother Irina Arkadina.
But it took an advance screening of director Michael Mayer’s new adaptation of “The Seagull,” opening Friday, to realize just how turgid Lumet’s version was. Shot with a fluidity that collapses four acts into a brisk hour and 38 minutes, its screenplay was adapted by the celebrated playwright Stephen Karam. Where Lumet left everything on the screen to the tune of 141 seemingly unabridged minutes, Karam distills every scene to its essence, judiciously trimming dialogue without losing nuance. Even viewers ordinarily repelled by the idea of sitting through a 19thcentury Russian tragedy—you know who you are, even if you won’t admit it—will be intrigued and often riveted by its deft pacing, modern acting and jolts of dark humor.
It helps that Karam and Mayer both respect the particulars of Chekhov’s masterpiece, honoring its original setting and linear storytelling with reverent clarity. With one exception, that is: It begins, unexpectedly, backstage at Moscow’s Imperial Theatre in 1904, with Irina (Annette Bening) receiving news that her brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy) is nearing the end of his unfulfilled life. Right away, we’re in the thick of the play’s final act, and it’s a bit disconcerting. Thankfully, after about five minutes of this tease, we flash back to the familiar country estate two years earlier, and the events leading up to the story’s devastating climax.
The inciting incident hinges on a play within the play (or in this case, a play within the movie). Irina’s son Konstantin (Billy Howle), a sensitive dreamer who writes passionate, symbolic, pretentious works of avant-garde despair, is proud to mount his latest production to a backyard conclave of friends and family. He’s in love with his star, neighboring Nina, a flaxen-haired ingénue played by the eternally appealing Saoirse Ronan, whose enthusiasm for the part admittedly exceeds her abilities.
The reaction isn’t what Konstantin hoped for, receiving nothing by disrespectful sniggers and dismissive comments from Irina, setting in motion the mother-son conflict at the heart of “The Seagull.” To make matters worse, Nina has become smitten with Irina’s latest arm candy, Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), a middlebrow novelist who is likewise infatuated by Nina’s attention and spirit. Meanwhile, Masha (Elisabeth Moss), the morbid daughter of Irina’s housekeeper, longs only for Konstantin, for whom she is little more than wallpaper. Hearts are bound to broken and then trampled under carriage wheels.
Jealousy, resentment, vanity, the refusal to embrace the march of time, lust masquerading of love—these are the themes roiling eloquently throughout this masterful ensemble, its cast carefully curated. Moss delivers her most heartbreaking performance yet as Masha, who in this version snorts drugs and spikes her morning tea with vodka just to get through another emotionally punishing day; she is the quintessence of a depressed person. Dennehy channels quiet yearning in his small but memorable role, and Howle balances his character’s combustible mix of Angry Young Man and angst-driven artist desperate for approval from the person most unlikely to give it.
But, far more so than in Lumet’s adaptation, this is Irina’s movie. She is the nexus around which everyone and everything else spins, and Bening’s bravura performance is everything you’d expect it to be. Inventing competitions where none exist, bestowing absurd compliments upon herself and vainly clutching at her eroded youth, Bening captures both her controlling nature, her delusions of grandeur, and the vulnerability she tries—with makeup and invective—to keep hidden.
In the end, tragedy strikes another character, but it’s only appropriate that Irina gets the last frame entirely to herself, her troubled, inward gaze meeting no one in particular, finally hitting upon a truth.
But it’s too late.
“The Seagull” opens Friday, June 1 at Living Room Theaters and Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton, Movies of Delray, Movies of Lake Worth, the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale, and more.