New York — The Sea Gull. Play by Anton Chekhov, translated by Jean-Claude van Italie. Directed by Elinor Renfield.
''The Sea Gull,'' the masterpiece that gave the Moscow Art Theater its emblem , is receiving a respectful but tentative production by the Circle Repertory Company. John Lee Beatty's four hospitable settings - with the help of Dennis Parichy's muted lighting - create a sympathetic atmosphere for Anton Chekhov's mood-filled, gently humorous, always compassionate study of unrequited loves and unfulfilled hopes. But the revival at the American Place Theatre seldom soars very high.
Among many other things, ''The Sea Gull'' is a play about the artist's life, whatever his pursuit happens to be. Sorin, the elderly landowner on whose estate the events occur, tells the would-be young writer Treplev: ''We cannot do without the theater.'' The first impelling event of the drama is the experimental, rather pretentious, yet somehow haunting playlet Treplev has written for the entertainment of the household.
The fiasco of this fragile theater piece foreshadows the darker and more poignant personal tragedies that follow: Treplev's loss of his sweetheart Nina to the bored trifler Trigorin, Trigorin's subsequent desertion of Nina after she has left home to become a touring actress, and the despair that drives Treplev to his second - and fatal - suicide attempt.
Richard Thomas sensitively conveys the pain and emotional turmoil of young Treplev, whose self-doubts feed on the casual neglect by his mother, the actress Arkadina. Self-centered and stingy, Arkadina's maternalism comes only in fits and starts. In the last act, Mr. Thomas shows us a more mature Treplev who is beginning to make his way as a writer but whose desperate fortitude deserts him as he realizes how lost Nina is to herself as well as to him. Whatever his gifts , the artist who might have been has failed. The residue of ''The Sea Gull'' is Chekhov's compassion.
Judd Hirsch delivers with authority and perception Trigorin's bleak reflections on the compulsions that drive him to write. Otherwise, Mr. Hirsch settles for an almost self-effacing detachment. Katherine Cortez, a robustly naive Nina, achieves an affecting pathos in her final scene. Barbara Cason's posturing Arkadina is strictly a road-company prima donna. Among the most helpful performances are those of Michael Higgins, as Sorin, the retired Justice Department official; Dennis Patrick as Doctor Dorn; Michael Ayr as the schoolteacher Medvedenko; and Nancy Killmer as the estate manager's wife who is in love with Dorn.
Jennifer von Mayrhauser designed the turn-of-the-century costumes for ''The Sea Gull,'' and Norman L. Berman has composed some plaintively Russianesque incidental music.