It's as if Streep hadn't been away from the stage for almost 20 years and Nichols hadn't been away for almost 10, but that they've been working up to this Seagull in incremental steps by way of a dozen productions, as Stanislavski worked with his troupe. Streep's Irina Nikolayevna, known as the actress Arkadina, is a labor of such subtlety and range that it will be recalled by this generation of theatergoers in the way that older patrons recall Laurette Taylor's Amanda Wingfield.
Arkadina, as Anton Chekhov observed her, is vain, stingy, volatile, overemotional, bored, charming, amorous, insensitive, witty, cruel. As Streep plays her, she is all of these things, often at the same instant. To watch and hear her alter in one sustained vocal arc a scream motivated by sheer boredom into an astonished laugh is to witness an actor demonstrate how far first-rate technique can go. And Streep has technique to spare. She isn't and never has been an actress who comes on stage or on screen and simply "is"; that is to say, she isn't Maureen Stapleton or Judi Dench. With Streep, there's always an awareness that she's put her performance together with great intelligence and much thought; but, by the time she sets it before audiences, it's all of a piece. She has blended every carefully selected element--here including an acrobatic turn--into something seamless. From Streep's first entrance through the doors at the top of a flight of stairs to her last scene, perched on a sofa, unaware that her son has just fatally shot himself, she demands to be watched.
In Chekhov's play, Arkadina has quit Moscow to spend a few days at her country home with her latest, younger lover, the famous if superficial writer Boris Alexeyivich Trigorin (Kevin Kline). During these languorous days, her son, Konstantin (Philip Seymour Hoffman), debuts an experimental play he's written to feature Nina (Natalie Portman), a neighbor and would-be thespian. The consequences of the aborted production are a marred holiday for all of the stressed-out personalities present and, over a longer course of time, the destruction of two innocents: Konstantin and Nina are left as bereft as the dead seagull he brings on during the second scene. "It's a symbol," Nina says in Tom Stoppard's stylish translation, "but of what?" Of her, ironically.
Chekhov wrote about The Seagull that there was a great deal of love in it. This is a somewhat disingenuous remark, just as disingenuous as his calling the play a comedy. Perhaps he meant "human comedy," in which case he's right. The Seagull is a comedy about love--or, more precisely, about the longing for love. In their endless searches, for the most part, no one gets more than intermittently what he or she wants. Masha (Marcia Gay Harden), the estate manager's daughter, loves Konstantin but eventually chooses to marry the teacher Medvedenko (Stephen Spinella) and treat him nastily. Masha's mother, Polina (Debra Monk), has long had eyes for Doctor Dorn (Larry Pine) but hitched herself instead to the lardy, prosaic Shamrayev (John Goodman). Trigorin wants only what he wants at the moment. Indeed, the only vaguely contented inhabitants of this sadly comic world in which blithe insensitivity is also prevalent are Dorn and Arkadina's brother, Sorin (Christopher Walken). They're lucky enough to have learned over time--60 years, in Sorin's case--that the one way to get along in life is not to want or expect anything from it.
In setting this exquisitely honed homily of a play in motion, Nichols' success with Streep isn't unmitigated. To some extent, he's run the course in the way that many directors do when undertaking a classic: He starts strong and then runs out of steam as he goes along. The opening scenes of the production are startlingly good; the Public's park setting is a big factor, since it answers completely Chekhov's call for an outdoor space with a lake in the distance. Nichols' genius for comedy is also immeasurably helpful. The director gets laughs, some of them as broad as if from an old Sam Levene vehicle, even as he lays the foundation for the impending double tragedy.
As the rest of The Seagull unfolds, however, the dividends decrease--possibly because Nichols lets the idleness of the characters dictate the pace too strictly. It's almost unnecessary to mention that this treatment of the play has received uncommon attention because of its starry cast and director, but solid-gold credentials have never guaranteed a transcendent product. Kevin Kline is the most notable disappointment; striking and casually virile as always, he seems determined not to play Trigorin in any time-tested way but hasn't yet settled on a fresh interpretation. He's weakest in his scenes with Portman and strongest with Streep. When Arkadina realizes that she's losing Trigorin and pulls him into a tussle on the floor as a means of retaining his attentions, Kline figuratively rises--while both are still rolling around on a Persian rug--to Streep's level. (Don't forget that he and Streep had practice setting off sparks in Sophie's Choice). Too often, however, his line readings lack passion and manipulation.
Among the rest of the company, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, and Larry Pine make the strongest impressions. Hoffman takes Arkadina's description of Konstantin as a "crybaby" as his starting off point; he's certainly a teary fellow, blotchy-faced and distorted. But the water works, so to speak, as does the fury he feels when his mother disdains his play and, worse than that, his need for money on which to subsist. Walken, whose performance last year in The Dead echoed that musical's title, is constantly hilarious in The Seagull. It's an eye-opening, jolly routine from an actor who usually seems glad to do as little as he can get away with. Pine's reputation as a theater reliable only grows; he slips into the role of Doctor Dorn as if slipping on a surgical glove.
On the other hand, John Goodman seems truly intimidated by the company he's keeping. His Shamrayev is tentative, has little weight. Debra Monk, normally flawless in the Stapleton-Dench mold, is flat. Marcia Gay Harden, wearing Masha's dreary garb (she's in mourning for her life, Masha boasts in one of Chekhov's best character-establishing lines) does a surprising drunk scene but is too old for the part--as is Stephen Spinella, despite the dark and curly wig he wears under Medvedenko's humble cap. Natalie Portman is lovely to look at and would have been well cast as Nina had she the required depth. (A Harvard undergrad, she apparently did an independent study of Chekhov to get in shape for this flashy summer-break assignment.) In short, what in theory sounded like a dream cast is only so-so in practice.
The look of this Seagull is just as hit-and-miss. Bob Crowley has designed the set and costumes. (In the set department, he was, of course, aided by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.) Chekhov's first act looks immaculate; Crowley only needed to set out a number of birches--some of them symbolically cut down--along with a rickety stage for Konstantin's play, a swing, a samovar, and a few chairs. Stage left, he has erected an ivy-covered summer house. That house becomes a liability in the second half when, supposedly, the action is taking place inside it: The structure remains and a number of sofas and rugs are placed downstage to serve as the interior halls and rooms. This tactic only just passes muster.
Added glowworm plus: During the press performance that I attended, as that glorious opening scene was drawing to a close, fireflies suddenly started flickering among the birches. It seemed too good to be true. Surely, Nichols or lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, who has a reputation for making miracles, planned it? Or maybe it was just Mother Nature going along with the flow. Needless to say, the effect can't be duplicated if the production, as rumored, moves to Broadway with all or many of its principal players intact. As it happens, those marvelous insects were also a metaphor for this Seagull: On again, off again.