Anton Chekhov always regarded The Seagull as a comedy, albeit one that ends in the tragic suicide of a central character, and Thomas Bradshaw leans into the humorous potential in his new adaptation, The Seagull/Woodstock, NY, which opened Tuesday in a production by The New Group at Signature Theatre.
Parker Posey is perfectly cast as Irene, an aging Broadway star who at one point is described as “theater famous — not famous-famous.” She’s a Tony winner whose narcissism extends to chastising her country-house neighbors for not flying to London to see her most recent production, and to shameless name-dropping. And she naturally has a strained relationship with her mid-20s son, a budding playwright here named Kevin (played with puppy-dog earnestness and not much sublety by The Consultant actor Nat Wolff).
Bradshaw, who’s earned a rep for onstage provocation, takes a surprisingly straightforward approach to Chekhov’s original — not to mention a largely straight one. Despite the casting of the flat-voiced trans actress Hari Nef as Sasha (Masha in Chekhov’s original) and the reference to the past male lovers of ailing actor-cum-lawyer Samuel (David Cale), the star-crossed romantic longings of the cast of 10 are entirely of the heteronormative variety. At one point, Kevin even delivers an Oedipal buss on the lips to his mother.
The playwright saves his outrage for the occasional anti-woke aside, mostly on the subject of race, which seldom manages to be the incendiary word bomb that you might otherwise suspect. By the time Kevin dismisses his mom’s famed-novelist lover William (Ato Essandoh) as being “only successful because he’s Black,” for instance, we already see him as a coddled nepo baby lashing out in the only way that he can.
What works best here is the hilarious skewering of the modern theater scene — the dismissal of any and all regional theater while extolling the bravery of stunts like an all-female production of True West. But Bradshaw sometimes seems constrained by the strictures of his source material — Kevin’s shooting of a gull for his unrequited biracial girlfriend/muse Nina (Aleyse Shannon) is an anachronistic gesture that cries out for a more modern interpretation. (The overlooked son of a Broadway star and an absent father raised in the bubble of good liberal schools would be unlikely to know how to shoot a gun, let alone kill something as small as a bird with the handgun that he holds onstage.)
Credit director Scott Elliott for mostly managing the tricky balance between farce and drama, though as the final scenes drift headlong into tragedy there seems to be no way to bring this plane in for a gentle landing. Happily, most of the flight is a blast.