The Seagull

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Production dates: August 12, 2001 - August 26, 2001
Venue: The Delacorte Theatre
Directed by: Mike Nichols
Literature: Anton Chekov
Costume Design: Bob Crowley
Set Design: Bob Crowley
Music: Mark Bennett

The story of a dysfunctional family in the Russian country about 1900. Medvedenko (Stephen Spinella), a schoolteacher, is in love with Masha (Marcia Gay Harden). But Masha is in love with Konstantin (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the son of Sorin's sister Arkadina (Meryl Streep), an actress. He is in love with Nina (Natalie Portman), an aspiring actess who lives across the lake near the estate. He suffers from the humiliation of his mother who is more interested in the writer Trigorin (Kevin Kline) than in him.

Meryl Streep (Arkadina), Kevin Kline (Trigorin), Christopher Walken (Sorin), Natalie Portman (Nina), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Konstantin), Stephen Spinella (Medvedenko), Marcia Gay Harden (Masha), Debra Monk (Polina), Larry Pine (Dorn), John Goodman (Shamrayev), Henry Gummer (Yakov), Morena Baccarin, Vitali Baganov, Craig Bockhorn, Mark H. Dold and Sharon Scruggs (Servants)

The cast is something of a midsummer night’s dream: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Marcia Gay Harden, John Goodman, Larry Pine, Debra Monk, Stephen Spinella. At the helm is Mike Nichols. And tickets are free. No wonder people are literally camping out in Central Park to see The Seagull. Apologies to Anton Chekhov, but it’s not his name that’s bringing them in. So, as a landmark theatrical occasion – which has surpassed ”The Producers” on the hype-o-meter and demands some 15 hours of your time in a ticket line – ”The Seagull” succeeds brilliantly. Credit the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival for pulling this off: It’s where Kline tackled heavies like ”Hamlet,” and where Streep, in the late ’70s, trod the boards in shows such as ”Measure for Measure.” (And where her 21-year-old son, Henry Gummer, is making his New York debut on stage alongside his mother.) Credit NYSF also for blowing the lid off the play: ”The Seagull” is perfect for an open-air stage like the Delacorte. Talk of trees and lakes seems perfectly natural; a throwaway line about a storm rings especially true on a soggy summer evening. Apparently, it was Streep who selected ”The Seagull,” a tragicomic masterwork that gives her the plum (though smallish) part of Arkadina, an aging actress whose vanity trumps her talent. She’s shacked up with Trigorin (Kline), a Tolstoy wannabe who falls for the nubile Nina (Portman), who’s the beloved of Arkadina’s son, Konstantin (Hoffman).

When they’re not professing love or contemplating death, they’re listening to friends and relatives profess love and contemplate death. In Chekhov, this is called comedy. Ms. Streep said she read up on the history of working women in 19th-century Russia. ”They were hookers or actresses,” she said. ”Arkadina is supporting a brother who is 16 years older and a son who will not work. Blame is heaped on her for a lot of things in the play. She’s the convenient one. The boss is always at fault. But there’s really nothing wrong with her son’s arms or legs or body. Excuse me, ‘Why is this my fault?’”

Armed with her ideas about Arkadina, Ms. Streep came to Mr. Nichols’s Manhattan office in February 2000 for a reading of ”The Seagull.” The reading was arranged after Mr. Nichols had called George C. Wolfe, the producer of the Public Theater, to ask if he would produce the play. ”Absolutely,” Mr. Wolfe remembers saying. Among the actors at the reading were Mr. Kline and Ms. Portman. The younger actress had met Mr. Nichols at a dinner party given for him by the clothing designer Diane Von Furstenberg, during the Broadway run of ”The Diary of Anne Frank,” in which Ms. Portman played Anne. Ms. Von Furstenberg, she said, ”invited me to her house, in Mike’s honor, and seated me next to him.” After the reading, Ms. Tichler recalled, ”Everyone said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ” Ms. Portman had immediate movie commitments, so the group decided to wait for her until the summer of 2001. During the next year, Mr. Nichols would build his cast – Ms. Portman, Ms. Streep and Mr. Kline were the holdovers from the reading – and debate with Ms. Streep over whether the vast Delacorte was best for the intimate play. ”The biggest difficulty is the airplane noise,” Mr. Nichols said. He, Mr. Wolfe and Ms. Streep looked at Off Broadway houses and even toured the Booth Theater on West 45th Street. But given Ms. Streep’s desires, and the Public Theater’s assurances that a new sound system was being installed, they opted at last for the Delacorte. (courtesy Entertainment Weekly, August 24, 2001 and The New York Times, August 05,2001)

☆   Drama Desk Award – Outstanding Actress in a Play