Of all of Anton Chekhov’s great plays, The Seagull is not only the hardest to pull off — with its delicate balance of comedy and tragedy — but the hardest to mount in an intimate Off-Broadway house like Classic Stage Company’s 13th Street Theatre home. The assorted residents and guests of a Russian country house (evocatively if minimally rendered by Santo Loquasto) that make up the play’s cast of characters are, by and large, ruled by grand passions and prone to grand gestures. If played too big, these people seem unbearably foolish; if played too small, they come off as pathetic, or worse, uninteresting.
Unfortunately, Russian director Vlachesalv Dolgachev and his uneven cast — led by the often-commanding Dianne Wiest — only intermittently solve this dilemma. Moreover, Dolgachev not only fails to find much of the play’s inherent comedy, but some of the drama instead plays as simple melodrama.
The grandest of the grand personae is the actress Irina Arkadina (Wiest), a vain, self-involved — yet not self-deluded — woman, who has returned briefly to the country home of her much older brother Sorin (John Christopher Jones), instantly disrupting the estate’s fragile equilibrium. Once there, she finds herself struggling to hold on to the affections of her current lover, the younger writer Trigorin (Alan Cumming) after he meets the beguiling 18-year-old Nina (Kelli Garner). Meanwhile, Arkadina’s presence — as well as Trigorin’s — has the strongest effect on her oversensitive son Konstantin (Ryan O’Nan), an aspiring writer in love with Nina.
No stranger to playing demanding divas, Wiest changes moods with quicksilver alacrity and consistently displays a fierce intelligence and sense of calculation as she works her wiles on the men (and women) all around her. She is also quite believable in her maternal affection for Konstantin, even as we see her frequent discomfort with that societal role. All that said, Wiest looks a bit matronly — a fact emphasized at times by Suzy Benzinger’s lavish costumes — making some of her more coquettish moments less effective than they could be.
Cumming, sporting a quasi-American accent, takes an unusual approach to Trigorin, conventionally played as a roguish charmer, well aware of his attractiveness to women. Instead, he chooses to present Trigorin as a man burdened with actual low self-esteem, not one who announces that condition merely as a way to seduce the impressionable Nina. Whether one believes that both Irina and Nina would debase themselves for such a man is decidedly open to debate.
Faced with the play’s trickiest role, Garner mostly impresses. True, she’s a tad too naive in some of the early scenes, and Dolgachev has, for some reason, directed her and O’Nan to run around the small stage with unnecessary kineticism. But there’s little question why Trigorin and Konstantin are enamored of her. As for the supporting cast, the one standout is the always reliable David Rasche, giving a nicely low-key turn as the impassionate Dr. Dorn.
At three hours (with one intermission), The Seagull can feel like a bit of a slog in even the best productions, especially in one like this that ultimately doesn’t fully reward one’s patience.