Several years ago, when landmarking the Broadway theaters was a hot issue, I was on a TV show with a beloved actor who made an impassioned speech on the subject. Virtually everything he said was factually wrong, but since he was on the side of the angels, it would have been churlish to correct him.
The beloved actor, of course, was Tony Randall, whose National Actors Theatre is also, theoretically, on the side of the angels. But its latest production - Chekhov's "The Seagull" - is yet another instance of why the road to hell is lined with theaters - landmarked or not - full of good intentions.
The plays of Chekhov - like those of Ibsen and Strindberg - are like icebergs. The text is the tiny bit that's visible above the water. Unless the director and actors fill in the contours of everything below the surface, these plays seem superficial and meaningless.
What is fatuous about the National Actors Theatre is the notion that all it takes is a few weeks' rehearsal to fill in those contours. No pianist would dream of performing late Beethoven sonatas with a few weeks' rehearsal. No dancer would agree to do "Swan Lake" under these circumstances. Why should an actor imagine these roles can be mastered with a few weeks and good intentions?
Not surprisingly, the roles that work are smaller ones. John Franklyn-Robbins is wonderful as a self-pitying hypochondriac, but he is English, and the English, always understanding the role of class in society, have always fared well with Chekhov. Tony Roberts is strong as the local doctor, and Joan MacIntosh plays a landlord's striving wife with great conviction.
I did not see Mae West's Mme. Arkadina, the aging actress who serves as the focal point of the play, but I can imagine Tyne Daly might have used her as a model. Her posing, her snappy responses, her piercing voice evoke nothing Russian, nothing human, only caricature.
As a vain, selfish writer, Jon Voight's looks serve him well, but he too seems from someplace other than provincial Russia. Without a sense of place, Chekhov seems meaningless. The younger characters are played by actors whose overt emotions suggest New York in the '80s, not Russia a century ago.
Even the title character - a dead bird - has a faintly absurd glimmer in its eye. Perhaps it was stuffed by someone who had seen some rehearsals and decided to imitate the production's unwittingly comic taxidermy.
Anyone for Chekhov? If you are, you should have four-fifths of a good time with the National Actors Theater's production of "The Seagull," which opened at the Lyceum theater last night.
Having once recovered from that sometime disease of the English-speaking theater - that of making Chekhov a matter of dying falls and sentimental hushes, nostalgic grace-notes and poetic pauses - nowadays we often go too far in taking the great Russian at his asserted word that he wrote "comedies." Or perhaps we just confuse comedy with farce.
But it was the human comedy with which Chekhov was concerned, the dry, wry business of persisting through life. As a character says in "The Seagull," life is a matter of "knowing how to endure." And if that be funny - and sometimes it is - so be it.
Tony Randall's National Actors Theater must have learned a little something about "how to endure" from its blistering and generally ungenerous critical reception last season.
But - and fortified considerably by the palpable presence of Michael Langham as a new artistic adviser - it is now back for a second assault on New York, starting at a new Broadway home, with this credible, unfussy staging by Marshall W. Mason of "The Seagull," in a smooth translation by the Canadian dramatist David French.
This staging does indeed find a happy medium of enduring humanity between the excessive popularities of broad comedy and soft-toned tragic sentiment. There is also a sense of authority that was not always around hereabouts last season.
There is one snag: It's a big one, and had better be put away straight off. Randall has a touching faith in his stars - and I don't mean astrology. He believes in star theater (with the right stars in the right theater, who doesn't?), and will seemingly permit almost any concessions to name actors wishing to refurbish their names.
This can, and almost always will, lead to miscasting, as it does here, with Tyne Daly - I am sure a perfectly admirable actress in the right part - hopelessly at sea with the role of the gallantly but selfishly fading actress Madame Arkadina. Daly certainly doesn't know how to fade, and, with her vulgar, gross and unlikable presence, she scarcely even convinces as an actress.
The rest, thank heavens, is far, far better. With admirably stylized dacha-like settings by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, appropriately lived-in costumes by Laura Crow and evocative lighting by Richard Nelson, Mason's staging emphasizes summer heat and autumnal storms.
The heat is oppressive and the background is alive (sound by Stewart Werner and Chuck London) with insects and birds, particularly insects. The atmosphere lies heavy with emotion, yet the emotion itself, which is the texture of the play, is made, apart from the Arkadina, fairly light.
Mason takes as Chekhov's basis the relationship between the young aspirant actress Nina (Laura Linney) and the shopworn novelist Trigorin (Jon Voight), and both characterizations are revealing.
Voight manages to suggest that the contemptible Trigorin actually believes in his own mediocrity and actually thinks Nina will be his salvation. She, of course, isn't, and he acts towards her like the shallow scoundrel he is; but when she returns in the last act, far from the broken creature often depicted, Linney amply demonstrates that she will not only survive but will use her pain to become a great actress.
Both Linney and Voight are superb; and, as variations on the theme, the other mismatched lovers - Konstantin (Ethan Hawke), unavailingly adored by Masha (Maryann Plunkett), and Polina (Joan MacIntosh), pushed aside by Dr. Dorn (Tony Roberts) - are all sensitively played roles that could have been choreographed by a half-smiling Ingmar Bergman one Swedish summer white night.
Adding to this really excellent ensemble cast is the admirable John Franklyn-Robbins as Sorin, cheerily embittered as an old man who has not, like the others, lost at love but never loved at all.
But that too, Chekhov tells us and Mason reminds us, will pass - whether it be now or later, with a young man's pistol shot or an old man's heart attack. Meanwhile, Chekhov offers a certain comforting - and mildly funny - assurance of the continuity of agony. They call it life.
The classics may be the mountains of the theater, but you don't climb them just because they're there.
This is the lesson that seems sadly lost on the well-meaning but floundering National Actors Theater, which officially opened its second season over the weekend with a production of "The Seagull" at the Lyceum Theater. Who would not be in favor of a new company that wants nothing more than to put on great plays with top American actors at affordable prices on Broadway? Lofty as that ideal sounds in principle, however, it becomes meaningless when the productions lack any artistic passion or even coherent points of view. When classics are staged for no compelling reason other than their cultural status, the results are lifeless. The plays stiffen up, much like leather-bound editions of classic novels that remain out of reach, never to be cracked open and read.
The National Actors Theater's predicament is brought into even sharper relief by "The Seagull" because much about the company has improved since last season. The caliber of actors and directors is dramatically higher, and the founding artistic director, Tony Randall, has brought in a far more experienced theatrical hand, Michael Langham, as artistic adviser. Yet the results achieved in this Chekhov production, as directed by Marshall W. Mason, are superior to last season's only in the sense that mediocrity is superior to catastrophe. Given the larger number of good actors onstage, the waste of resources and talent is, if anything, more conspicuous.
Take, for instance, the case of Jon Voight, who has chosen to make a welcome return to the stage in the role of Trigorin, the successful, if second-rank, writer who toys destructively with the women at the play's heart. It's an ideal part for Mr. Voight, a romantic presence with a worn spirit and a poetic countenance; his desperation is touching when he cranks up the old magic to woo the adoring young actress, Nina, at the end of the third of Chekhov's four acts. But until that moment at center stage, Mr. Voight's performance, through little fault of his own, has hardly registered. Neither he nor anyone else has been integrated into a mutually supportive acting ensemble that might convey the subtle dramatic undercurrents that animate Chekhov's intensely neurotic provincial household.
Mr. Voight might as well be appearing in a different play entirely from Tyne Daly, who plays Trigorin's present lover, the aging actress Arkadina. Although Arkadina is a selfish mother (to her son, Konstantin, a fledgling playwright) and a determined woman of the theater, traits she nominally shares with Mama Rose of "Gypsy," Ms. Daly is completely miscast in the role. The fading grandeur and vulnerability of this vain 19th-century Russian woman are replaced by a vulgar, 20th-century American brassiness. (Her matching costumes give new meaning to Arkadina's line "My wardrobe alone is enough to ruin me.") The connection, however frayed, between her and Mr. Voight is farcical rather than emotional or erotic, and the same is true of her Oedipal tie to her terminally sensitive son, who is acted by the promising Ethan Hawke with an arm-waving display of unfocused nervous energy.
And so the whole production goes. Unable to sustain the play's weave of interlocking love triangles or its thematic preoccupation with art and artists, Mr. Mason provides a progression of individual front-and-center domestic scenes that have little cumulative effect and allow the actors only brief, transitory victories. Along with Mr. Voight, the more victorious include Joan MacIntosh, who burns to the quick as Polina, the bitter wife of the boorish steward, and John Franklyn-Robbins, whose self-contained turn as the steadily declining estate owner, Sorin, is a concise comic essay on the absurdity of mortality. Laura Linney, the highly gifted young actress cast as Nina, may be the most commanding actor of the lot, but her bracing, unmodulated vitality, so appropriate to the mature Nina of the final act, seems out of sync before then. In smaller roles, Maryann Plunkett (Masha) and Tony Roberts (Dr. Dorn) offer sardonic poses whose potential for depth is left unexplored.
There is no reason why Mr. Mason, who has shown Chekhovian spirit in his fine stagings of Lanford Wilson plays like "Talley's Folly" and "Fifth of July," could not create a moving "Seagull." It is a mystery why he has replicated the same musty style the National Actors Theater established last season, from the standard-issue naturalistic sets (almost indistinguishable from those used for "The Master Builder") to the languid pacing to the melodramatic application of incidental music.
Actually, style is too strong a word for so superficial an approach to a classic text; this "Seagull" recalls laissez-faire stock productions of the naive American theater of 30 or more years ago. The ambitions, now as then, are virtuous. But it is the night, not Chekhov's view of disappointed lives, that grows long.
Tony Randall's National Actors Theater launches its second season with another travesty of a sacred theatrical text, Chekhov's "The Seagull," leaving its record for such derailments nearly unblemished. This one features two badly miscast stars - Tyne Daly and Jon Voight - and director Marshall W. Mason, who knows better, seems to have staged it as a vehicle for them.
Daly surprised everyone two years ago by turning in a powerhouse performance as Mama Rose in the Broadway revival of "Gypsy." As Madame Arkadina, she's still a great Mama Rose, barking her lines and generally sailing through the proceedings with a rough-hewn hauteur. At least there's some life in her; Voight, vacant and disengaged, delivers Trigorin's lines in a numbing monotone and seems to float through the proceedings unaffected by the goings-on around him.
But no one comes off well in this fiasco. Laura Linney doesn't seem to believe anything Nina says, and so becomes one long irritant; ditto Ethan Hawke's phony, brooding Konstantin. Maryann Plunkett, who has been the company's major bright light, is dim nearly to the point of extinction as Masha.
The work of some very talented designers also falls below their usual standards: Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's settings are self-consciously arty, as are Laura Crow's costumes. Richard Nelson's lighting is fine.
It's hard to tell whether the whole enterprise just got away from Mason, who would seem to be a natural fit with Chekhov, or if his energies have simply been too diffuse this season, with two other major productions running concurrently. Whatever happened, "The Seagull" looks more like the work of the Community Actors Theater than an organization that boasts the word national in its name.