Bradshaw’s allies in this nervy act — one that I’ve seen attempted before, with not quite this level of verve — are director Scott Elliott and a skillful cast, headed by Parker Posey. She’s the buoyant actress playing the spotlight-hogging stage actress of the story, whose ego is so crushing that even a needy son (incisively portrayed by Nat Wolff) is treated as collateral damage.
Posey proves to be a dream choice for Irene — Bradshaw’s American version of Chekhov’s Irina Arkadina — a “theater-famous” star who loves reminding guests at her country house in shabby-chic Woodstock of her acclaimed performances (a female “True West” among them). Bradshaw seasons his “Seagull” with funny, theater-world tidbits, accessible references that won’t exclude audience members who don’t curate their own collections of framed Playbills.
The consistent payoff in Elliott’s production, staged with a pleasingly intentional informality on the Linney Theatre stage at Pershing Square Signature Center, is the care with which Bradshaw sews his own perceptions into Chekhov’s needlework. Bradshaw, who teaches at Northwestern University, deals rawly in his plays with race and sexuality, sometimes to a degree that can shock the faint of heart. He uses the opportunity in “The Seagull/Woodstock, NY” to both explore and send up some of his own theatrical inclinations, especially in one of “The Seagull’s” best-known interludes: the backyard play that Wolff’s Kevin (Konstantin in the 1896 original) stages for Irene and her friends.
This is the scene in which Chekhov channels through the ardent young man a plea for tolerance of “new forms” of artistic pursuit. The manifesto is updated in “The Seagull/Woodstock, NY” to advocate unexpurgated freedom of expression on the stage, including the use of racial epithets we don’t speak and private acts we tend not to advertise. The monologue Kevin creates is recited with amusing earnestness by Nina (a vivacious Aleyse Shannon), the aspiring actress Kevin loves but who, with tragic consequences, doesn’t love him back.
The scene works so well because it really does identify the border of what’s considered acceptable that Kevin seeks to obliterate. (It does so more successfully than many revivals of the classic.) And it goes a long way to defining the poignancy in the play: namely, the lengths Kevin will naively go to fill the Oedipally challenged void in his life, to gain his mother’s admiration and win Nina’s heart.
The laid-back rhythms of an arty colony transfer well from rural Russia to Upstate New York, as do the preoccupations of the lady of the homey manor, her friends and sycophants. Irene, hyper-conscious of her age and the attraction Nina represents to William (Ato Essandoh), Irene’s novelist-lover with the roving eye, tends to dress too ostentatiously for the country (courtesy of the savvy costume designer Qween Jean). There’s an amusing back-and-forth, too, over Irene’s insistence on arriving at a social event in a rich neighbor’s electric Bentley. Appearances mean everything to Irene, an understandable obsession for an actor but a paralyzing affliction for a sensitive son.
Elliott admirably infuses the company with a palpable sense of mission. The production begins before the first line is spoken, with the actors warming up onstage, offering each other words of encouragement, and ends with them breaking into song. The feeling of an authentic ensemble is conveyed across the 10-member cast. The memorable turns include those by Essandoh; Amy Stiller and Hari Nef, as a know-it-all socialite and her seen-it-all offspring; and David Cale as Irene’s dying brother.
Chekhov himself might have gotten a special kick on this occasion, out of how smartly his ever-popular “Seagull” travels to distant locales — how even his musings about a better life in the future are repurposed topically here. He’d probably also want to grab an espresso after the show with Posey, to ask her how she got his late 19th-century character so right in the 21st.
The Seagull/Woodstock, NY, by Thomas Bradshaw, adapted from Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” Directed by Scott Elliott. Set, Derek McLane; costumes, Qween Jean; lighting, Cha See; sound, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. With Bill Sage, Patrick Foley, Daniel Oreskes. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through April 9 at Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., New York. thenewgroup.org.
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