Great plays are plays for a reason. If something succeeds onstage, it’s usually because it was written for that medium. Of course, if Hollywood can make a blockbuster out of a video game, classic Russian dramas are fair game as well. Unfortunately, although “The Seagull” sports a winning cast, the latest adaptation of the stage classic should have let Anton Chekhov’s writing speak for itself.
The drama unfolds on a Russian country estate, and it involves the intertwining love lives of the actress Irina Arkadina (Annette Bening), her lover and well-known author Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), her lovesick son Konstantin (Billy Howle), and their young neighbor Nina (Saoirse Ronan). Konstantin loves Nina and envies Trigorin’s success, Nina is starstruck and becomes infatuated with Boris, who’s aroused by Nina’s admiration, and Irina is too busy tracking Trigorin’s waning desire to take an interest in her son.
Meanwhile, Masha (Elisabeth Moss) is so desperately in love with Konstantin that she weeps incessantly. The schoolteacher, Medvedenko (Michael Zegen), follows her around like a puppy. Masha’s mother, Polina (Mare Winningham), loves Doctor Dorn (Jon Tenney), who looks after Irina’s brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy), who surveys the action with an old man’s bemused concern.
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Staying true to the theory of Chekhov’s gun (which states that if a gun appears in the first act of a play it must go off by the next), Konstantin shoots a seagull and lays it at Nina’s feet. Howle, who made an impression in “Dunkirk,” attacks Konstantin’s malaise with such vigor that one wonders what could possibly ail such a lithe young man. It works to justify Irina’s confusion when, seeking the attention of both the women in his life, Konstantin uses the gun again.
It goes without saying that Bening and Ronan are both excellent in their respective roles — one as the aging diva and the other the wide-eyed ingenue. Both are skilled in balancing the comedic with the dramatic, earning laughs and gasps in equal measure. But Moss takes the cake; Masha is the kind of role that keeps actresses like Moss employed. She’s pitch perfect from the moment she says, “I’m in mourning. For my life,” with the same wry tone and killer timing as, “A lot of women drink. Just not as openly as I do.”
With such talent, all director Michael Mayer had to do was keep the camera still and shout “action.” The Broadway director known for “Spring Awakening” and “American Idiot,” gutsy productions that landed like a shot of adrenaline into a flailing musical theater canon, Mayer films “The Seagull” like he’s choreographing a Green Day song. The film is littered with so many dolly shots that swing to Bening’s face, it’s a wonder she didn’t get whiplash during the production. It is Annette Bening, after all. Doing Chekhov. You don’t need to do much.
Mayer and screenwriter Stephen Karam (whose play “The Humans” won the Tony in 2016), open the movie with the play’s final act before returning to the actual beginning, a showing of Konstantin’s play starring Nina two years prior. The device works to orient the audience and set up some intrigue, but when the final act comes back around, Mayer repeats the minutes-long opening. That lengthy repetition not only drags out the ending unnecessarily, but feels like a particularly odd choice here. Chekhov was known to leave certain dramatic events off the page (such as Konstantin’s suicide attempt); such economy sharpened his storytelling. No such luck here.
The editing, where it relaxes, goes a long way toward emphasizing the play’s humor. The reactions of each character during Konstantin’s play are priceless, as is a cut to Irina’s spirited singing after someone suggests Nina perform. Trigorin and Nina’s courtship hurdles forward inevitably, and Stoll skirts the line between charming and slippery with the assurance of a “House of Cards” actor. Theater lovers will enjoy seeing these actors take on such iconic roles, but they’ll find themselves wishing they were seeing the same great talent on the stage.
“The Seagull” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 21, 2018. “The Seagull” opens in theaters on May 11.