How do you breathe new life into a play Anton Chekhov wrote in 1895?
First, you have it adapted by a relatively young but talented writer. Next, you turn the project over to a hungry director. Finally, you assemble a talented cast of veteran actors and acclaimed newcomers.
That strategy was employed for a thoroughly fresh cinematic take on The Seagull, which had a couple of screenings at the recent Newport Beach Film Festival and opens Friday and May 25 in Orange County theaters.
The Seagull is considered the first of Chekhov’s four great plays, and the Moscow Art Theatre production of 1898 was considered one of the greatest Russian theater achievements.
The latest adaptation was written by Stephen Karam, whose play The Humans won the Tony Award for Best Play and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2016. But Karam infuses his Seagull with comedy, as he did with his play Sons of the Prophet, which was a Pulitzer finalist in 2012, and his screenplay for 2017’s Speech & Debate, which he adapted from his play and is his only other credit for a feature film that has been produced.
The Seagull opens with part of a scene that will be returned to in the final act. Retired civil servant Sorin (a frail but formidable Brian Dennehy) is on his deathbed in the early 1900s at his country estate, where he is surrounded by family, household workers and a doctor friend. His sister, Moscow stage actress Irina (a self-obsessed Annette Bening), arrives with her lover, the well-known writer Boris Trigorin (a slippery Corey Stoll of The Strain and House of Cards).
The guests cause fits for Irina’s son Konstantin (a lost Billy Howle, The Witness for the Prosecution), who views Trigorin as a hack and his mother as unsupportive, even though she helps to bankroll the idyllic lakeside estate where he lives with his admiring uncle.
Cut to the same place a couple of years before. Sorin was in better health then, but it is evident the estate was infected with jealousy and unrequited love. Konstantin pines for Nina (a radiant Saoirse Ronan, the Best Actress Oscar nominee for Lady Bird), an aspiring young actress who lives at a neighboring estate. Nina has her eyes on Trigorin, who has joined Irina on a brief vacation at Sorin’s estate. Actually, the younger woman seems most taken in by the fame that suddenly surrounds her. You could imagine the Chekhov play informing All About Eve.
The Sorin estate manager’s daughter Masha (a hilariously Debbie Downer-like Elizabeth Moss) is madly in love with Konstantin, who pays more attention to a gnat. Unbeknownst to Masha, her mother, Polina (a desperate Mare Winningham), is having an affair with the family doctor Dorn (a bemused Jon Tenney, Major Crimes), even though she is married to Shamreyev (an explosive Glenn Fleshler, Barry, Billions), the retired lieutenant who runs the estate. However, Masha is quite aware that she is the object of the affections of schoolteacher Mikhail (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Michael Zegen, channeling his inner Woody Allen).
Throw in some suicide attempts, anger, sadism, rejections, humiliations, a bizarre play-within-a-movie-based-on-a-play and one very dead seagull, and you’ve got the makings of a delicious story filled with characters possessing the ugly emotions and motivations that reside in us all.
Most of the credit for that goes, of course, to Chekhov, who created a play more than a century ago with a power that has not diminished with time. It’s thoroughly modern, thanks in no small part to Karam, who previously adapted Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard for the stage.
The Seagull also works because the actors, including some who are used to playing leads, dive into ensemble roles and allow themselves to be displayed in most unflattering ways, including narcissism for Bening, delusion for Ronin and drunken broodiness for Moss.
Of course, even the best writing and acting can be undermined by poor direction. With The Seagull, Michael Mayer was at the helm of only his third full-length feature, his two previous being 2006’s Flicka and 2004’s A Home at the End of the World. But in the years between Flicka and The Seagull, Mayer directed for television and the stage, picking up Tonys for Spring Awakening, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and A View From the Bridge.
Though Mayer was adapting for the screen a drawing-room play, he paces The Seagull brilliantly, cutting out some of Chekhov’s chitchat, relying on the actors’ eyes, faces and body language to up the tension and humor. With editor Annette Davey (Dude, Waitress), Mayer also slices in footage from the great outdoors of Arrow Park Lake & Lodge in Monroe, New York.
As the story nears its end, by first repeating the present of the opening, the audience goes on to learn what happened to each character over the two years that ensued. There are some surprises, as well as a shocking ending, but thanks to solid acting, writing and directing, the payoff rings true.
The Seagull was directed by Michael Mayer; written by Stephen Karam, based on Anton Chekhov’s play; and stars Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Corey Stoll, Elisabeth Moss, Mare Winningham, Jon Tenney, Glenn Fleshler, Billy Howle and Brian Dennehy. Opens Fri. at Edwards Westpark 8, Irvine, and May 25 at Directors Cut Cinema at Rancho Niguel, Laguna Niguel.