PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Seagull — Rising Like a Phoenix

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Seagull — Rising Like a Phoenix The Seagull took wing Oct. 2 for what seems like its annual flight over Manhattan and will hover over the Walter Kerr for a limited stay of 14 weeks, through Dec. 21.
Kristin Scott Thomas, Peter Sarsgaard, Mackenzie Crook, Zoe Kazan, Carey Mulligan, Pearce Quigley, Julian Gamble, Ann Dowd, Peter Wight, Christopher Patrick Nolan and Christopher Hampton.
Kristin Scott Thomas, Peter Sarsgaard, Mackenzie Crook, Zoe Kazan, Carey Mulligan, Pearce Quigley, Julian Gamble, Ann Dowd, Peter Wight, Christopher Patrick Nolan and Christopher Hampton. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

The uncomfortable comedy Anton Chekhov made out of a collection of emotionally crude and careless country-folk comes from an acclaimed two-month Royal Court gig, directed by Ian Rickson, starring Kristin Scott Thomas as the queen bee of the occasion, Arkadina, a self-possessed, son-smothering actress in (relative) repose.

A couple of two-time Oscar winners have strutted Arkadina's stuff of late — Dianne Wiest in a Classic Stage Company production Off-Broadway in March, and Meryl Streep up in Central Park at the Delacorte in the summer of 2001. Now, it's the turn of the latest Olivier Award winner for Best Actress to be heard in the land, and Thomas' impressive Broadway bow is reason enough to warrant this new Seagull sighting, but the motion is seconded solidly by what The New Yorker's John Lahr calls "the finest British production of Chekhov in recent memory." Chek it out.

Save for four stateside hires (Peter Sarsgaard for Trigorin, Zoe Kazan for Masha, Julian Gamble for Shamrayev and Ann Dowd for Polina), the London cast is intact and collectively makes a compelling case for revisiting this familiar lakeside manor — especially when illuminated by a brilliant adaptation like Christopher Hampton's.

"It's actually my favorite play in all the world," confessed Hampton, whose handiwork is tantamount to a love offering. At the after-party held in a fittingly old-fashioned way at Sardi's, he couldn't really say how his version differs from others.

"I don't know because I haven't really consulted a lot of other people's versions. When I came to do it, I didn't look at anybody else's because if you see something that somebody else has done it's very distracting so I just worked directly with the Russian woman who provided me with an absolutely literal translation." Three months have elapsed since Hampton was last on Broadway — via a revival of his 1987 Tony winner, Les Liaisons Dangereuses — and he expects to be back in another three months, this time with his third Yasmina Reza play translation (after Life (x) 3 and 1998's Tony winner, Art). It's called The God of Carnage. Last year Ralph Fiennes had a success with it, but he won't be repeating it here. "We're casting an American company," said Hampton, "and we've got a really good cast. It starts rehearsal here in January" — helmed by Art director Matthew Warchus.

Another who's boomeranging back to Broadway in three months is director Rickson, who will be steering Mary-Louise Parker through the rigors of Hedda Gabler.

On opening night Rickson was conspicuously M.I.A. Peter Wight, who is making his Broadway debut (like almost all of the imported cast) as Arkadina's older and ailing brother, Sorin, solved the mystery: "He had to go back at the weekend. He was here for three weeks of our previews, but his wife is a director as well and she's working on a play. They have a daughter — so he had to go back to do a little child care."

Thomas, a willowy blonde gone brunette for Arkadina, credits the director with steering her straight to the Olivier podium (by implication, can the Tony be far away?).

"I just wanted to play this part really badly," she admitted, "and, when I heard Ian Rickson was doing The Seagull, I went to him and I said, 'Well, I'm available, anytime.' I said there'd be very little acting required, that I was very like Arkadina."

She hasn't noticed any difference in transatlantic responses of audiences, but there is a big difference in the playing area. "The Walter Kerr is a huge house compared to the one at the Royal Court, which was only 300-something seats. It was a very different atmosphere. It was more intimate. They 'get it' straight away on this one."

As the play's metaphorical seagull, Nina, Carey Mulligan doesn't just make entrances — she fairly swoops on stage and commands your attention in a luminous textbook portrait. It's the Nina you've always wanted to discover. "I think she's an amazing character. I love her ambition and ability to endure and survive and not buckle against the odds — especially for a woman at that time. Nina's got a fast heartbeat, a quick pulse, so everything she does — she makes her decision and does it."

Her eyes were glistening at curtain call. "That was like a dream come true," she translated. "I've been close to tears all night, just thinking about it. My mum sent me a letter saying some quote about dreams coming true, and it's so bizarre. When I was 14, I saw a show in that theatre [now the Kerr] and just thought there was no way I would ever, ever, ever get up there so it's just completely surreal."

Kazan, a chronically working actor since her stage arrival two years ago and already an award contender and winner, jumped at the chance of playing Masha, Nina's romantic rival for Trigorin. "I loved her so much, my character. And I love the play. I'm having a wonderful time. I feel very lucky to have Chris Hampton's translation, because it's so beautiful and clear and concise. It doesn't feel like an old play." She brings humor and a life force to the role that lesser actresses let sink into a depressing blandness. On one occasion, she prompts applause with her exit line, but it hasn't turned her head: "There's a famous story of Uta Hagen playing Nina. She'd get applause every night when she left the stage, and she said she had to figure out a way to kill it to know that she was really doing well. So I've got to figure out a way to kill that."

Mackenzie Crook who plays Arkadina's tortured, suicidal son, Konstantin, is actually the same age as Sarsgaard who plays her lover (37) — and looks a little older. "It's the most profound experience of my life, doing this show," he declared. "It's the first time I've been entrusted with a role of this nature. Up until now, I get the quirky character, the goofy comedy guy — and this is just so far removed from those parts that I normally get."

Sarsgaard, boasting a full bush of beard ("I like it. Winter's coming"), related easily, he said, to the writer's passion — and not just because he often plays writers in films (most memorably, "Shattered Glass" and "The Dying Gaul"). "I wanted to be a writer," he said, "and it's what everyone encouraged me to be when I was a child. When I was a kid in high school, everybody said I was a writer. And then in college I studied writing with Stanley Hopkins, and he told me I should be an actor. He was a beautiful man but a cruel man."

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Zoe Kazan with Paul Dano, Rob Ashford, Forbes March, Maria Thayer and David Harbour, Des McAnuff, Oscar Isaac, Olympia Dukakis with Louis Zorich and Zoe Caldwell with Rita Gam
photos by Aubrey Reuben

Stars with vested [love] interests on stage maintained low profiles at the Sardi's party as best they could with the pesky press around. Paul Dano, who co-starred with Kazan not only Off-Broadway in Things We Want but also in real life ever since, admitted he'd like to get back to the stage but was, for now, going with the film flow that "Little Miss Sunshine" and "There Will Be Blood" started for him. Ditto Maggie Gyllenhaal, who was there squarely in Sarsgaard's corner, brimming with pride. David Harbour, who discreetly-but-not-discreetly-enough played the lover of Gyllenhaal's brother Jake in "Brokeback Mountain," was present with his main-squeeze, Maria Thayer. You wouldn't say "Who?" if Godspell had opened and you had heard Thayer sing "Day by Day," but the show closed on its first day of rehearsal and a wake was held in Central Park (ironically, not far from where Hair was making the big Broadway-transfer noise that blew Godspell off this season's schedule).

Since being a couple, they have worked together professionally — in "State of Play," a film coming out next year with Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck. Before then, Harbour has a pair of blockbusters going into release — "Revolutionary Road" and the new James Bond movie. Theatre is looking very back-burner these days, as it once did for Brando. "I'm going to go live on an island now and get enormous," Harbour hooted.

Coming in two-by-twos: Zoe Caldwell and Rita Gam, producer-attorney John Breglio and director Robert Longbottom, New Group's new-two Josh Hamilton and Sam Rockwell and — she can be counted in this — a pregnant, due-in-two-weeks Caroline Rhea ("I risked labor to see this. Literally. At any time. It's a long play.")

Olympia Dukakis, on the arm of hubby Louis Zorich, said The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore that she did in Hartford last summer may soon be stopping in Manhattan, its first New York revival since Tallulah's fast five-performance ride in '64, a year after its original two-month run. Tennessee Williams rewrote and rewrote to get it right. "There are so many versions of it," sighed Dukakis, but Michael [director Michael Wilson] put together a script that made the most sense. We'll see what happens. The Roundabout is interested in it. I hope it happens."

Even the understudies had support systems in place. Carman Lacivita was there for Jonathan Fielding, who covers four roles ("it feels like six"). Last season Lacivita crossed swords with Kevin Kline's Cyrano de Bergerac — at Kline's request — and expects next summer to be aboard a new Elaine May comedy that May will direct. Marlo Thomas and Alan Alda are the designated stars. A hush-hush workshop that reportedly went well was done at the George Street Playhouse. "We don't know where it's going to be," admitted Lacivita, "but the [aim] is the summer of '09. We'll have another tryout again regionally, some place like Hartford or Huntington."

Tony-winning choreographer Rob Ashford, currently doing Shrek steps, just had to crow that he would soon be flying high — off to Never-Never Land (i.e., "Prague and London") in January — to film the long-overdue (like 54 years!) movie version of the Carolyn Leigh-Moose Charlap-Jule Styne-Betty Comden-Adolph Green Peter Pan.

"I love The Seagull and a lot of the people in it, but not all of the people in it," opined Geniuses playwright Jonathan Reynolds, hitting the cautionary button. He has just finished a brand new opus. "It's called Girls in Trouble (formerly Three Abortions)," he said. "It may be done at The Flea. They're talking about doing it this season."

In from Canada for some hush-hush huddles and to look in on his Jersey Boys, director Des McAnuff is a man divided, living a tale of two cities these days: "I've got Caesar and Cleopatra running in Stratford right now with Chris Plummer and Nikki [M.] James, but in the winter — I believe in February — I'm going to do Guys and Dolls. We haven't announced the theatre, but we think we know where we are going."

Also conspicuously attending: a glamorously svelte Bernadette Peters, open-collared everyman movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, theatre documentarian Rick McKay, producer Sonia Friedman, Steve Van Zandt (signature bandana flapping in the wind), Oscar Isaac, The Public's Oskar Eustis, composer Philip Glass and Mike Myers.

The curtain call at <i>The Seagull.</i>
The curtain call at The Seagull. Photo by Aubrey Reuben