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A Seagull in the Hamptons

Maria Tucci gives a superlative star turn in Emily Mann's updating of Chekhov's classic comedy.

By New Jersey
Brian Murray and Maria Tucci
in A Seagull in the Hamptons
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Brian Murray and Maria Tucci
in A Seagull in the Hamptons
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Add Maria Tucci to the list of superlative Arkadinas who've distinguished Anton Chekhov's so-called comedy, The Seagull, since it premiered disastrously in 1896. Then put an asterisk by her name, since Tucci is not playing Chekhov's actual Irina Nicolaevna Arkadin, she's a character called Maria in A Seagull in the Hamptons, now at Princeton's McCarter Theatre, which artistic director Emily Mann has "freely adapted" from the original -- and has also directed extremely well.

But don't be misled. This is pure Chekhov, down to the last audible sigh uttered by people for whom indefinable despair is like humidity -- and they're all languishing from the intensity of it. What Mann has done in her desire to liken (not fully convincingly) the collapse of imperial Russia to Eastern Long Island malaise is merely to slot in occasional attitudes and contemporary references. Consequently, Meryl Streep is mentioned as a stage rival for Maria, and John Lennon's "Imagine" wafts in from a party down the beach.

Meanwhile, the characters remain virtually the same as in Chekhov, with their names (mostly) changed. Milly (the excellent Laura Heisler) is a steady tippler and still in mourning for her life. Maria's playwright son Alex (Stark Sands) explodes diatribe-like about insipid Broadway fare, although he seems unaware of Off-Off-Broadway venues where his brand of experimental writing might be welcome. The young actress Nina (Morena Baccarin) still catches the eye of Philip (David Andrew Macdonald), a successful short story writer who decides to pen a short story about wantonly corrupting a young girl and acts out the narrative with Nina to sorrowful consequences.

The lower-class folks catering to those languidly summering are Lorenzo (Daniel Oreskes), his wife Paula (Jacqueline Antaramian), and local school teacher and speech-impediment-challenged sad-sack Harold (Matthew Maher). And while caring for both failing brother Nicky (Brian Murray) and playing regular hostess to neighbor Ben (Larry Pine), Maria still insensitively regulates the Quogue roost according to her whims.

As the pivotal figure, Tucci rules in more ways than one. As she often has in the past, Tucci gives a subtle performance as she weaves hauteur, disregard, charm, true and phony passion, coquettishness, jealousy, cunning, and genuine maternal concern into her portrayal. She understands that Maria is a narcissist who doesn't act only when on stage but considers her life a star vehicle in which she's determined to reap kudos. It's hard not to watch her and her alone when she's undermining Alex's play or attempting to cajole Philip into staying with her rather than philandering with Nina or chastising the servants for not acceding to her selfish wishes.

Tucci may have no more effective sequence than the volatile one with Alex where each accuses the other of being ultimately talentless. She is admirably abetted during this segment by Sands, who is distraught without being unnecessarily overwrought. Rarely, if ever, has this mother-son confrontation so noticeably echoed Shakespeare's Hamlet-Gertrude bedroom interlude.

Although Tucci sews up her part with commendable bravura, she doesn't do it by obscuring the ensemble playing. There's no acting weak link, although too often throughout the first half Mann asks the actors to station themselves across the front of the stage as if they're objects in a frieze. As always, Murray, Oreskes and Pine are effortlessly on target, while Macdonald, Ataramanian and Maher are to be praised for their accurate realizations. Playing Nina, the play's most difficult assignment, the lithe, helmet-haired Baccarin -- clothed by Jennifer von Mayrhauser in sundresses that look as if they've been purchased at high-end Hamptons boutiques -- alters from innocence to disillusionment with no difficulty whatsoever.

Best of all, Chekhov himself would surely have approved the entire enterprise.


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