The last time I saw an “adaptation” of this Chekhov classic it was Aaron Posner’s Stupid____Bird, also set in the (then) present. There have been at least three other iterations not including Christopher Durang’s Vonya and Sonya and Masha and Spike. A tragicomedy, usually more droll than laugh-inducing, the piece focuses in large part on life’s undercutting expectation and desire, loving or being loved by the wrong person. The assortment of inextricably bound, entitled friends and family provide catnip for playwrights who satirize and update entanglements.Thomas Bradshaw is no exception.
In the original play, Chekhov’s Masha explains always wearing black as a sign of mourning for her life. In Stupid____Bird, the character says it’s “slimming.” Here Sasha counters, “At least it’s not from Walmart.” Modern tropes. Except for Samuel’s colorful shirts and a single one of Irene’s outfits, however, costumes by Qween Jean are unflattering, unstylish and inappropriately cheap looking among well-heeled characters.
David Cale (Samuel), Parker Posey (Irene)
Derek McLane’s set, on the other hand works well. The cast carries outdoor and indoor furniture onto an empty, two-tiered wooden stage. Every rustic, but “good” piece fits time and place. Perforated paper lanterns work splendidly to evoke atmosphere. A jerry-rigged, backyard stage is pitch perfect.
The evening begins with company warm-up: stretching, vocal exercises and an amusing group sing of Graham Nash’s “Our House” which the audience is invited to join. Prologue seems to advise us not to take anything that follows too seriously. In a play with ruined lives and a suicide, this might suggest survival necessitates a sense of humor. Mine was not ticked here.
Irene (Parker Posey) an actress who personifies narcissism, her Black “life partner” William (Ato Essandoh), the kind of novelist everyone praises but few understand, and her hyper-sensitive son Kevin (Nat Wolff), an aspiring playwright, are visiting Irene’s ailing “brother without DNA”, Samuel (David Cale).
Daniel Oreskes (Darren), Ato Essandoh (William). Parker Posey (Irene), Amy Stiller (Pauline), Hari Nef (Sasha)
Former Indie film queen Posey, usually entirely credible, is directed to be so caustic and oblivious it’s a wonder anyone is drawn to her. Where is practiced seduction? In fairness to Posey, both playwright and director conceive Irene as something of a cartoon. Essandoh has the natural grace of a confident predator and reads believable. Wolff’s Kevin broods without simmering, making outbursts less effective. Cale is marvelous. Samuel emerges warm, thoughtful, fragile; relatable.
To say Irene and Kevin have a fraught relationship is putting it mildly. She loves but resentfully neglects him. He fatalistically longs for her approval subjugating anger and confusion that necessitate his being medicated. The histrionic young man is devoted to Nina (Aleyse Shannon), a bi-racial neighbor on whom, to Irene’s chagrin, he’s based his play. Nina is fond of him while maintaining friendship in hopes of Irene’s approval and possible help. Shannon is so understated, we question her character’s sexually liberated behavior. A goodbye scene serves to showcase her chops.
Ato Essandoh (William), Aleyse Shannon (Nina)
Also in the mix are cruelly bickering couple Darren (Daniel Oreskes) who lusts after Irene, his wife Pauline (Amy Stiller), in love with their friend Dean (Bill Sage), the couple’s daughter, Sasha (Hari Nef), besotted with Kevin – “He wants to be with a girl who won’t even give him a blow job?!”- and ingenuous school teacher Mark (Patrick Foley), who hangs around waiting for crumbs from Sasha. It’s a caucus race. Oreskes and Stiller do yeoman work. Nef uses deadpan, nasal delivery to define Sasha. The character is admirably all of a piece, but established by technique which keeps us an arm’s length from sympathy. Sage and Foley have little to do.
Ethnicity and sex come up repeatedly in this woke interpretation: When the “N” word is featured in Kevin’s play – eliciting an ear-piercing horn – Irene’s I’m aware reaction is, “Black lives matter.” Apparently forgetting that after Nina’s treatise on masturbation (in Kevin’s play), William won a contest whose prize was to actually watch the girl masturbate (behind closed curtains), Irene thinks her lover is drawn to Nina because she’s biracial. To us, it’s obvious he’s a horndog and she’s more than willing.
Nat Wolff (Kevin), Aleyse Shannon (Nina)
There are lots of remarks about “fucking” and some “farting.” William is up front to Irene about not being monogamous going so far as to share videos. At one point touting youthful vitality enabled by advice from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop site, Irene brags, “I’m doing Kegels (vaginal exercise) right now.” Though talk of sex is increasingly less guarded these days, instead if adding verisimilitude, the playwright appears to aim for audience laughter just shy of toilet jokes. As to contemporary reference, in addition to Paltrow, there’s Brian Cranston, Bob Dylan, Tracy Letts, Arthur Miller and Terence McNally to name a few.
Reliable director Scott Elliott moves his cast with logic, emotion, and solid pacing. Stage business looks real.
Choices are made. Time passes. Characters suffer or perpetuate heartless behavior. Self deception wrestles with Faustian bargains. Thomas Bradshaw is a good craftsman, but I miss feeling sympathetic to at least some of these misguided characters, finding this a lively, but gratuitous production.
Photos by Monique Carboni
Opening: Parker Posey (Irene), Nat Wolff (Kevin), Daniel Oreskes (Darren)
The New Group presents
The Seagull/Woodstock, NY by Thomas Bradshaw
Adapted from Chekhov
Directed by Scott Elliott
Through April 9
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street