A Seagull in the Hamptons

Dave and I saw Emily Mann’s Chekhov adaptation, A Seagull in the Hamptons, at Shotgun Players on Friday and it’s one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time. It’s been extended through this Sunday so I urge all theater lovers to go see it. Mann translates The Seagull from a successful actress’s vacation home in the Russian countryside to a successful actress’s vacation home in the Hamptons, and it all works wonderfully well. The characters and situations seem more immediate and vivid, more understandable, easier both to laugh at and to sympathize deeply with. And it seems to me that the production conveys Chekhov’s own mix of comedy and pathos more truly and consistently than any other I’ve ever seen. The production is intensely human and painfully funny from the opening lines (“I’m in mourning for my life” is not just a poignant line but a very funny one as well in this production), and the final scene between Alex (Konstantin’s name in this version) and Nina is both hopeful and heartbreaking at the same time.

It’s a bit scary to realize how important The Seagull has been to me in my life, and yet how completely my view of it has changed over the decades. When I was in college, I identified a lot with Konstantin, the young, idealistic writer; now I find Konstantin maddeningly naive and pigheaded, and Trigorin carrying his damned notebook everywhere seems by far the more sensible artist to me now. He may well be third rate, as Konstantin thinks, as even he himself thinks; but I no longer think it’s the job of a writer to try not to be third rate, only to do his or her best and keep writing. And hopefully not try to evaluate or think too much about one’s ranking in the larger scheme of things; nothing will bring on depression, crappy writing, and/or writer’s block quicker than that. If one’s best turns out to be third rate, so be it; it’s only through by continuing to write as well as one can that one might become better, and if one never does, well, despite what they tried to teach me in college, the world badly needs more good third-rate art, too.

Now, some 30 years after my first acquaintance with the play, it seems to me that Nina is the one is this bunch most likely to ever become a really good artist. When we see her in the last scene she’s still in the throes of a lot of very painful disappointment and disillusion, but she’s forging ahead all the same, and even if she doesn’t realize it yet, she’s going to get her head straight one of these days and find that she’s learned more than she realizes from all the miserable small parts she’s been playing. The director and cast agree with that take on Nina in this production, I think; Alex/Konstantin doesn’t think she’s a good actor, but when she recites some of his ridiculous play again in the last scene, in this production she speaks it with so much genuine feeling that she even makes it sound like good writing, and we in the audience can see for ourselves that she has now achieved exactly what she said she dreamed of in the first act; but she still doesn’t realize this herself, nor does Alex see it. But Alex never will, and there are hints that Nina is already slowly starting to wake up to it. She still thinks of herself as the girl in Philip/Trigorin’s short story, the one whose life a man carelessly destroyed; she doesn’t yet realize that the real destruction of her life would be to end up like Milly/Masha, and that Philip didn’t destroy her life at all but saved it. Not that he intended to; he could just as easily have destroyed it through his weakness if she were a slightly different kind of young woman. He gets zero brownie points for saving her life. But he saved it, however accidentally, all the same. And if Nina hasn’t put all the pieces together yet, she will, if she keeps at it. And at the end of The Seagull it looks like she’s determined to keep at it.

At least, that’s how it looks to me now.

Anyway, this is a wonderful production. It runs one more week.

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