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The Seagull Movie Review: Russian Classic as Counter-programming

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There’s a new version of one of playwright Anton Chekhov’s most famous plays, The Seagull, being released on film this weekend. With Anette Bening, Saoirse Ronan and Elizabeth Moss heading up a great ensemble cast, this incarnation is directed by Michael Mayer, who won a Tony Award for directing Spring Awakening on Broadway, from as interpreted for film by Stephen Karam, writer of the award winning plays Sons of a Prophet and The Humans, both of which were finalists for a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The question the comes to mind for those who know the play and are aware how many versions of it have already been done is, though pedigreed, what are these filmmakers and performers bringing that’s new and worth seeing?

I remember seeing the play for the first time right around when the J. Geils Band song “Love Stinks” was famous, and it was perfect timing. That could have been the subtitle.

Aging and narcissistic actress Irina Arkadina (Bening) goes to a summer house to visit her ailing brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy), her famous novelist lover Trigorin (Corey Stoll) in tow. Her angsty would-be writer son Konstantin (Billy Howle) is also in residence. He is in love with the impoverished country girl living next door, Nina (Saoirse Ronan), who is fascinated by Trigorin’s fame and enigmatic personality. Essentially everyone is in love with someone who is in love with someone else. It’s love stinks, Russian-style, which means attempted suicides and callous betrayals are an essential aspect of the plot.

Chekhov famously labeled his 1896 play as a comedy. For those of us who have seen it, or even, as an acting right of passage, performed in it, it’s tragicomic at best. It’s the sort of “comedy” a depressed Russian writer trapped in a cabin buried in snow for months on end would create. That’s not to say it isn’t a great play, and one that the best performers of stage and screen over the last 100+ years have been driven to perform, bringing their personal nuance to the narcissistic, self-absorbed, love-tortured men and women of the famed story.

Ever since Stanislavski played one of the central characters and directed it at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898, performers in every generation have famously stepped into the various roles. Acting teacher extraordinaire Uta Hagen made her Broadway debut at 18 as Nina. Arkadina has previously been played by Tyne Daly, Meryl Streep, and Kristin Scott Thomas, while Laura Linney, Carey Mulligan, and Natalie Portman have taken on Nina. As the tortured would-be writer Konstantin, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke have made their mark. No doubt many of your favorite stage actors have been in The Seagull at some point.

In the 2018 cast, Bening, Ronan, and Moss are the ones who shine most brightly, although no one can make any of these characters likable. Still, what makes The Seagull so evergreen as a play is the nuanced study in human behavior offered through the interaction between characters. These three actresses know how to make even the most iconic characters their own, and they are perfectly cast.

Is another film version of The Seagull warranted? Beyond showcasing great female performers, probably not, but that might be enough. As a respite from the barrage of superhero movies, this counter programming will make you feel appropriately literary. It will also serve as an excellent opportunity to put the thespians brought together under a performance microscope, should you, like me, be that kind of theater geek.

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