Where did Thomas Bradshaw go? I don’t mean literally; I’m aware that he’s still around on the planet, and that he currently serves as a department chair at Northwestern University’s esteemed School of Communication, and that he’s continued his output of plays over the last few years.
But where is the work that not so long ago used to be so incendiary? Even if they were imperfect (and some of them were), his plays from a decade ago – works like The Bereaved, Burning, and Intimacy – took provocative stances on sex and sexuality, with copious amounts of frontal nudity to back it up. They were conversation starters. His newest work to debut in New York City, Woodstock/ The Seagull, NY, a Chekhov nip-and-tuck job receiving a starry New Group production directed by Scott Elliott at the Pershing Square Signature Center, will leave you with nothing to talk about.
As the title will alert you, Bradshaw has moved the action to modern day in Woodstock (although why there, as opposed to artists’ enclaves more conveniently located to New York City, like Beacon or Rhinebeck?), and he has transposed several of The Seagull’s characters’ names. Irina is now Irene, a vain actress played by a seemingly dissociative Parker Posey. “She’s theatre-famous, not famous-famous,” another character says, using a line that begs for laughter without really earning it, and letting us know a bit more about the character as well as the show itself.
Her son Konstantin is now Kevin (Nat Wolff), a depressed writer pining for Nina (Aleyse Shannon), a neighbor’s daughter starring in the play he plans to have presented to an audience assembled of her mother’s friends and relatives at the home of Irene’s old friend, the ill Samuel (a lovely David Cale). Meanwhile, Nina will fall for William (Ato Essandoh), Irene’s current man, while Sasha (Hari Nef), carries an unrequited torch for Kevin.
The basics of the source material are here, but the spirit is gone. What was once a meditation on survival and depression in hard times now just comes off as catty. Everyone is vaguely unhappy about what they don’t have in their lives, losing sight of what they do. But it’s also lowbrow. Kevin’s “play” requires Nina to discuss masturbation and then invite the winner of an audience participation segment to watch her privately in an onstage bathtub. (Derek McLane designed the show’s wood plank set.)
Bradshaw then shifts the play a few times, in ways that don’t echo Chekhov but also don’t provide enough of a cri de Coeur on its own. Nina and William become drawn to each other, inorganically, but the playwright adds in a dimension of race. Nina is biracial and William is multiracial, leading William to declare that only interracial marriage and biracial children are the solution to heal a divided nation. our divided country. Nina’s response: “I don’t know. I think Black people should stick together.” But then the
play doesn’t dig any further. Similarly, a conversation about the career opportunities available to artists of color ends up giving way to snarky comments about the industry instead of addressing an important issue.
The second act doesn’t find a way to modernize Chekhov’s Seagull as much as it mashes the play’s dramatic points up with upper class armchair whining: creatives being creative, but interpolated from The Ice Storm. The characters talk through every issue, ridding the work of any subtlety. But Cha See’s gorgeous lighting certainly helps accentuate the drama at hand.
Elliott’s stilted staging, running almost two hours and forty-five minutes, does the show no favors. Whether it’s the production’s start, where the cast (which also includes Patrick Foley, Daniel Oreskes, Bill Sage, and Amy Stiller) does group warmup exercises and then exhorts the audience to sing along to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “Our House,” or first-act ender involving Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” these choices confuse Bradshaw’s intended tone, toggling from melodrama to mockery. (Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen did the sound design.) Too much of the blocking involves backs turned to the audience and business, including important reactions and prop-holding, are blocked from view. And many entrances and exits come off sluggishly. You can practically hear the ticking of a metronome waiting for them to arrive or leave.
While most of the cast rides the wave admirably, there remains the curious case of Posey’s performance. Her lines, almost all of which are intended to be punchlines, land, but are always off by several beats. There’s constant deadwood with every delivery. It’s almost as if she was being fed lines offstage – there’s no connection between her and her scene partners, primarily Essandoh and Wolff. We need to see more of Irene’s inner fragility, her all-consuming, deeply destructive narcissism. This performance is cute but inconclusive.
Call The Seagull/ Woodstock, NY what you will: adaptation, update, blatant lift. However you want to view it, the characters have to still be characters, with an inner life that draws its audience in. How do you take one of the most living and influential world of theatre and make it so dull and pedestrian? Only thing that it shows but doesn’t tell.
The Seagull/Woodstock, NY
Pershing Square Signature Center