'Seagull' falters, then soars

Celebrity-decked play draws huge crowds, but will it help live theater?

In the New York theater world, success is sometimes greeted with a sniff and a snort.

Case in point: "The Seagull," written in 1895 by Anton Chekhov and onstage through Aug. 26 at Central Park's outdoor Delacorte Theater, features a cast including Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Natalie Portman, John Goodman, Marcia Gay Harden, Christopher Walken, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, all under Mike Nichols's direction. So many stars, and, as always at the Delacorte, tickets are free. What's not to like?

Plenty, according to a New York Times columnist who grumbles that the tickets may not cost money, but they cost enormous amounts of time. Just ask bleary-eyed theatergoers who've arrived at the box office at 6 o'clock in the morning - and found hundreds of people already lined up. It might be easier to score ducats for "The Producers," the season's biggest Broadway hit.

There's a deeper question, too: How salutary are such star-studded productions for the health of the American theater? Filling the stage with Hollywood celebrities may draw large crowds, cautions a commentator in the online magazine Slate, but it fosters the notion that theater productions are just imitation movies - hardly the way to sustain live theater as a unique and vigorous art form.

Not everyone is complaining about "The Seagull," of course - least of all the delighted proprietors of Shakespeare in Central Park, which has been staging outdoor productions here for the past 46 summers. They've had their share of hits over the years, but this is one for the record books, and it may possibly move to Broadway soon.

Many patrons are also pleased with the show, judging from the applause I heard when I saw it. Then again, I couldn't help wondering whether they would have been so enthusiastic if they hadn't invested an entire day of their lives in obtaining tickets - an indignity critics like me don't have to endure. Were they cheering this particular interpretation of Chekhov, or were they celebrating the evening's movie-star charisma?

One of the pleasures offered by this "Seagull" is the opportunity to see how top Hollywood actors fare in a serious and subtle stage classic. Will they just skim across its surface, or will they fulfill Chekhov's desire to make "everything on the stage be just as complex and at the same time just as simple as in life"?

The answer turns out to be both. This celebrity-decked "Seagull" is an uneven affair that begins weakly, but grows in power as it proceeds. Since little stands out in Nichols's staging, and Tom Stoppard's new adaptation doesn't add to the play's poetic value, its best moments occur when the actors engage themselves most deeply in the story's dramatic situations.

Kline does this beautifully, drawing on his longstanding ability for understated character-building in his portrayal of Trigorin, a respected author visiting friends on a Russian estate. Streep is more problematic as the famous actress Arkadina, playing her early scenes too broadly and showily, although she calms down in the second half of the evening.

If anyone can be said to steal the show, it's Hoffman as Konstantin, the aspiring writer whose frustrated yearnings give the first act its most poignant comedy and the last act its most tragic surprise. Walken is his usual unpredictable self as Sorin, the owner of the estate, and Portman has touching moments as Nina, a young actress with an uncertain future. Goodman has little to do as the estate's manager, but he's always fun to watch.

This "Seagull" is impressive when it allows Chekhov's delicate blend of comedy and melodrama to unfold with as little fanfare as possible, and it runs into trouble when overeager acting gets in the way. What can't be faulted is the setting provided by the Delacorte, where the play is framed by three dozen leafy trees that Chekhov would have called for. This production may be top-heavy with celebrities, but its old-fashioned Russian sensibilities shine through in the end.

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