Chekhov at the Beach

Shotgun Players present a Seagull for our time.

How, exactly, a hypersensitive writer named Alex spawned from the womb of his diva-mother Maria is anyone’s guess, since the two seem to have no genetic traits in common. But they do make a dynamic pair in Emily Mann’s A Seagull in the Hamptons, a dysfunctional-family drama inspired by Anton Chekov’s play The Seagull. Mann’s version uses all of the original characters (albeit with names changed), the same character-relationships, the same symbols, and the same basic plot structure. But her Seagull is crisper and funnier than the original, littered with pop-culture nods and literary references. Like Chekov, Mann figured out how to wring all the dramatic juice out of human misery, and find the humor underneath.

So did Reid Davis, who directed Shotgun Players’ current production of Seagull, running through April 25 at the Ashby Stage. In the opening scene we’re introduced to morose 22-year-old Milly (Anna Ishida) and her unwanted suitor Harold (Andy Alabran). It’s a disorienting scene, not only because the two look wrong for each other (he’s a prep with big, chunky glasses; she’s a goth chick with tousled hair and heavy eye makeup), but because Milly looks out of place in their beach habitat. Right away, Milly establishes herself as Harold’s superior, telling him she wears black because she’s “in mourning for her life.” Ishida is an interesting choice for the role. She doesn’t have quite the fragility you’d expect from Milly, whose real predicament isn’t life per se, but her unrequited love for Alex. Yet she does have the right look for the role: dour, evasive, and unremittingly pissed off.

She has plenty to be pissed off about, as the resident black widow in a set that seems allergic to black. Everything else in the Hamptons is bright and artificially cheery. The characters wear pastel pinks, teals, Hawaiian prints, spaghetti straps, floppy sun hats, World Wildlife Fund beach bags, and loafers without socks (all meticulously conceptualized by costume designer Victoria Livingston-Hall). They sit amid the abandoned sneakers in Robert Broadfoot’s sandpit set, meant to depict a Long Island beach town where rich New Yorkers convene for a summer reprieve from the Big Apple. The scenic design is minimalist but spot-on, with its modular boardwalk and landscape painting in the background. The actors traipse through this landscape as bleary-eyed as any beachgoers. They chug Pellegrino water, slather themselves with sunscreen, and show off their swarthy orange tans. Mostly, they fight.

Fighting is what Chekhovian characters do best. The Russian playwright had a sordid view of human relationships, and he seemed to think that an ego, if left to its own devices, could wreck just about anything. In this case the ego belongs to Maria (Trish Mulholland), an aging actress who likens herself to such grand dames as Judi Dench and Meryl Streep. Mulholland plays Maria as the type of intemperate broad you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. She incessantly criticizes the other characters, grouses about her surroundings, and slithers about the stage with her current boy-toy, a bestselling hack writer named Philip (Alex Moggridge). He’s an appropriate foil for Alex (Liam Callister), and sidekick for Maria: the ruthless, fame-mongering striver who carries a notebook mostly for show, occasionally documenting his crude observations about the world.

Like most writers, Chekhov worked best in threes, so Seagull is really a big jumble of overlapping love triangles. Alex has the hots for a small-town girl and aspiring actress named Nina (Kelsey Venter), so he largely ignores any overtures from Milly. Nina likes Philip. Philip seduces Nina, but ultimately returns to Maria. Maria feels familial obligation to Alex, though her allegiance is to Philip. A lecherous old doctor (John Mercer) flirts with Nina and Milly’s mother Paula (Beth Deitchman). Harold likes Milly, either for masochistic reasons or lack of other options. In the midst of all this confusion, Alex and Nina stand out as the play’s only moral compasses, but they’re wobbly at best. Chekhov envisioned The Seagull as an ensemble piece, and Mann kept it that way by weaving together several stories.

At times, it’s hard to know who to latch onto. We get to see Milly fall apart in the first act, watch as dark bleeds into light over her sad, inert face, and wonder why she’s so hard-up over a guy who doesn’t seem worth the trouble. Indeed, Alex seems like a weird choice for an unrequited crush. His jaw juts out and his cheeks look like they were colored with red crayon. Callister is young and seems fairly green — he conveys the youthful Alex quite well, but never quite reaches the full sentiment of Alex the writer. From the moment Alex shoots a seagull and lays it at Nina’s feet, we’re supposed to see doom on the horizon. When he emerges in the second act with his head bandaged, his fate is sealed. Mann’s interpretation of the original ending is brilliant and unsettling. The payoff would be even greater in the hands of a more capable star.

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