|THE SEAGULL/WOODSTOCK, NY|
Few plays in the theatrical canon reveal the depths of human despair more than Anton Chekhov’s 1896 masterpiece “The Seagull,” even if its author was known to describe it as a comedy. Still, that’s no reason Thomas Bradshaw’s 2023 update, “The Seagull/Woodstock, NY,” now being presented by the New Group at the Pershing Square Theater Center, should be played almost primarily for laughs –especially as Bradshaw checks off all the Chekhovian boxes that should make an audience shed tears for the desperate plights of these unhappy characters.
Instead, yuks seem to Bradshaw’s primary aim in this version (directed by Scott Elliott), re-set in a Hudson Valley home co-owned by the vain, self-centered actress Irene (a spectacular Parker Posey) and her dying homosexual best friend Samuel (an affecting David Cale). True, some audiences will appreciate the abundance of inside-baseball theater jokes that garner guffaws, but you don’t need to use Chekhov’s framework if that’s your main goal.
And, while there’s almost no nudity here – unlike in some of Bradshaw’s previous outings – there’s plenty of prurience and provocation. It’s not an issue, per se, that Irene’s younger lover, the brilliant writer William, is African American, but it feels like the great actor Aso Essandoh has been cast because he’s an obviously towering stud, not necessarily because his William is a towering intellect.
More problematic is that the bi-racial “ingenue” Nina (an underwhelming Aleyse Shannon) abandons Irene’s gloomy but lovestruck son Kevin (a fine Nat Wolff) for William in part due to his sexual allure, but mostly because they “believe” that bi-racial babies will eliminate racism from the planet, a specious ideology at best.
All this aside, Bradshaw’s adaptation’s biggest failure is that almost every personage has been reduced to one-note characterizations, from the embittered “heiress” Sasha (a sarcastically unpleasant Hari Nef) to the meek schoolteacher Mark (Patrick Foley), Sasha’s bickering parents Darren (Daniel Oreskes) and Pauline (Amy Stiller), and Pauline’s one-time lover, the laid-back doctor Dean (Bill Sage). I challenge you to care about what happens to any one of them.
The one exception, at least for me, is Irene, brought blazingly to three-dimensional life by Posey (aided by some pitch-perfect costuming by Qween Jean). Her idiosyncratic line readings make her far more than some standard-issue grand diva, allowing her to wring laughs out of lines that aren’t particularly funny on the page.
More importantly, Posey perfectly conveys the insecurity of a middle-aged actress worried that the best days of her career are behind her. While Posey looks like a woman in her 30s, we still understand why Irene puts up with William’s infidelities knowing our society’s constant fascination with youth (although I won’t rule out some truth to Kevin’s barb about the size of William’s penis).
Further, Posey brings a much-needed sincerity to her concerns that Kevin’s depressive state has been caused by her half-hearted and ineffective attempts at traditional mothering. (Then again, it seems entirely possible that Kevin’s mental state is solely caused by a chemical imbalance.)
Indeed, if it wasn’t for Posey’s luminous turn, this “Seagull” would truly deserve “the bird.”
By Brian Scott Lipton
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