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There are joys available in Michael Mayer's adaptation of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, among them the enjoyable performances by Annette Bening, Elisabeth Moss, Corey Stoll and sly old Brian Dennehy. The play itself is durable, classic in its lines and form and precise in its observation of human psychology.

It might feel familiar even to those who haven't seen it performed on stage (or Sidney Lumet's pretty good 1968 film version, which starred Simone Signoret, James Mason and Vanessa Redgrave). Seen by some as the first modern play, it's widely credited with bringing a more naturalistic style of dialogue to the theater, challenging the declarative, melodramatic conventions of the time.

The Seagull

87 Cast: Annette Bening, Elisabeth Moss, Saoirse Ronan, Corey Stoll, Brian Dennehy, Glenn Fleshler, Jon Tenney, Mare Winningham, Michael Zegen

Director: Michael Mayer

Rating: PG-13, for some mature thematic elements, a scene of violence, drug use, and partial nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

It's famous for its use of subtext -- instead of directly addressing issues, its characters skirt them, talking around the room's various elephants. (This is also the play that includes Chekov's famous gun.)

When it was first performed in 1896 it was a disaster. The audience was hostile, and one of the actors, Vera Komissarzhevskaya, was so intimidated by their booing she froze on stage. It wasn't until two years later, when Konstantin Stanislavsky -- who developed the famous actor training system that was the forerunner of American "Method" acting -- directed a production for the Moscow Art Theater in 1898 that critics and audiences began to appreciate it.

Contemporary film audiences won't find The Seagull, which screened at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, particularly innovative; its use of subtext and understated acting has informed the movies since before the movies talked. So a film version rises or falls on the strength of execution.

Irina Arkadina is a role big enough to allow free and full expression of Bening's gifts. The role seems tailored to her particular combination of expansive charm and close-quarter cuttingness. Intelligent and icily tough, Chekov's diva reigns over a diverse group of family and retainees, including her perpetually unwell brother Sorin (Dennehy); her younger lover, the popular writer Boris Trigorin (Stoll); Masha (Moss), the practical and dyspeptic daughter of her brother's estate manager; her aspiring symbolist playwright son Konstantin (Billy Howle); and Nina (Saoirse Ronan), a young neighbor and aspiring actor of whom Konstantin is enamored.

All of these multidimensional characters are brought together on Sorin's country estate, where -- in the penumbra of Irina's oversize personality -- they talk and drink while Konstantin attempts to mount a pretentious production that no one takes seriously. Konstantin resents Trigorin's success (and facile talent); Trigorin desires Nina; Masha rolls her eyes, and Irina dominates all of them.

It mostly works, sometimes spectacularly well. This is a remarkably funny movie at times as Bening and Moss, in particular, trade potent looks. As Nina, Ronan faces the challenge of playing a bad actor with an unearned confidence in her abilities. (I was reminded of musically astute Meryl Streep playing the painfully bad singer Florence Foster Jenkins a couple of years back.) Stoll's Trigorin is vain yet touchingly aware of his limitations; even Howle's Konstantin, who initially presents as merely annoying, eventually achieves a credible humanity.

Screenwriter Stephen Karam shuffles Chekov's narrative slightly, placing the beginning of the fourth act at the beginning so that the action unfolds in flashback, a decision that establishes the movie-ness of this Seagull somewhat more effectively than the occasionally frenetic pacing and editing Mayer -- who directed A Home at the End of the World 14 years ago but whose most notable work has been for the stage -- employs. We get novel camera angles, sweeps through the sumptuous wooded location (upstate New York standing in for Moscow's exurbs) and lots of quick cuts signifying not much. While none of this proves fatal to the movie, it adds nothing.

On the other hand, part of the perceived slightness of the production is no doubt due to the reputation of the play. Audience members who have seen it may not realize how having an actual lake available for the characters to row upon improves the experience. Any attempt to drag Chekov into a more concrete realm might be derided in some quarters as shallow literalism.

This Seagull might be best enjoyed by audiences blissfully ignorant of the play, its freighted history and undeniable significance. Maybe the trick is to come in to it completely unprepared and without expectations. That way, it might seem fun. And devastating.

MovieStyle on 06/22/2018

Print Headline: The Seagull

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