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Shallow 'Seagull' in a hurry

by Erin Blackwell

Saoirse Ronan as Nina, and Corey Stoll as Boris, in director Michael Mayer's "The Seagull." Photo: Nicole Rivelli, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Saoirse Ronan as Nina, and Corey Stoll as Boris, in director Michael Mayer's "The Seagull." Photo: Nicole Rivelli, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics  

The first proscenium arch was permanently installed in the Farnese Theatre in Parma, Italy, exactly 400 years ago. The proscenium, whether arched or not, is the frame through which a theater audience observes the characters in a play. This frame focuses the action and tames theater's native zest for anarchy. Europeans outdid themselves inventing stage machinery to create illusions of place and depth of perspective. This aesthetic evolution could be said to have reached its culmination in the playwright Anton Chekhov, as directed by Constantin Stanislavski, at the Moscow Art Theatre. A new film of his 1896 play "The Seagull" opens Friday at the Landmark Clay.

"The Seagull" was the first of Chekhov's three great plays that changed the course of Western theater. Something called "subtext" was born. Characters no longer speak their thoughts, but say things to avoid revealing their inner feelings. These feelings are nonetheless kept on a permanent boil, like the samovar that sits at the center of each of these plays, promising the warmth of community to characters stuck in subjective isolation. The scene is always a country estate, where the layers of the old class system can be studied as an archeological dig even as old privileges come unglued to make way for the Russian Revolution.

In "The Seagull," the title character is killed in Act II by young Konstantin, who tries to give the dead bird to his love object Nina, who is repulsed by this sad, mad offering. Konstantin's mother's lover, the urbane Trigorin, has an idea for a short story: "A young girl lives all her life on the shore of a lake. She loves the lake, and she's happy and free, like a seagull. But a man arrives by chance, and when he sees her, he destroys her, out of sheer boredom." Trigorin is that man, Nina is the seagull, and Chekhov's comment that the play is a comedy should not be taken too literally by people who don't understand the sublime distancing effect of the proscenium arch.

Director Michael Mayer has whittled down the text to fit a 99-minute run time, making room for intrusive music of the Philip Glass school to actually drown out the dialogue. Gone is the leisurely, summery rhythm of intimate speech across the impassable distances of human relationship, replaced by manic jump cuts leading nowhere in particular except onward in an attempt, I guess, to forestall the audience's impatience with these Russians' need to unburden their souls to one another. The jerkiness is worst at the beginning, which includes a snippet of the fourth act as a framing device, which is cosmetic not dramatic, and a ghastly mistake.

In this whittled-down world, Annette Bening as the actress Irina Arkadina looms large. Her self-centeredness is a quality the audience recognizes as its own. She moves from comic to tragic in her last two big scenes: first, cruelly shattering her son Konstantin with insults before reconciling; next, coaxing her lover Trigorin back to her and away from his infatuation with Nina. Corey Stoll's Trigorin is a simple construct: a workaholic writer eager to exploit Nina for writerly insights into the psychology of young women. Billy Howle's Konstantin is a boyishly handsome, frustrated mama's boy. Saoirse Ronan as Nina, the contested muse of both writers, is oddly uninspiring, but she pulls out the stops for her final scene of despair and madness.

Elisabeth Moss as Masha makes an indelible claim on the audience's attention from out of left field, with her unrequited love of Konstantin, who doesn't know she's alive. She not only says she's in mourning for her life, she falls easily into tears at the thought of her own suffering. In a hard-minded moment she defends her drinking habit as a common vice she practices unhypocritically. If everyone played with her brio and depth, if the characters weren't reduced to bare outlines, and if the film itself were less self-conscious about taking up people's time and more focused on the ineffable mysteries of the human condition, Chekhov would be better served.

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