By Kenneth Jones
12 Aug 2001
Meryl Streep and Mike Nichols' long-awaited return to the legitimate theatre will finally be official on Aug. 12, when their already much- ballyhooed look at Anton Chekhov's The Seagull opens at Central Park's Delacorte Theatre. Joining the director and star will be a few other noteworthy actors — someone named Kevin Kline and a couple promising newcomers called Philip Seymour Hoffman and Natalie Portman — as well as several hundred New Yorkers fortunate to snag one of the outing's hard- to-get free tickets.
Theatregoers who miss the limited al fresco affair aren't necessarily out of luck, however. Playbill On-Line learned last week that the star-studded staging may have a life beyond its current Delacorte run, which ends Aug. 26.
Producers are currently exploring the possibility of a transfer to an indoor theatre sometime this fall, with several of the venture's many famous names remaining aboard, if schedules can be worked out. The Public Theater has made no official announcement regarding any engagement beyond the summer run, but Playbill On-Line learned the cast is being queried as to their availability.
One cast member, Debra Monk, has long been booked to begin work on the new Harry Connick Jr.-Susan Stroman musical Thou Shalt Not, which opens on Broadway in October. A spokesperson for Monk said the actress had been approached about a possible "November situation" for The Seagull but confirmed that the actress would be focused on Thou Shalt Not after Labor Day.
Another question mark for the Seagull's possible future cast would be Academy Award-winner Marcia Gay Harden (playing Masha in the park), who has been cast in a new fall television show, "The Education of Max Bickford," starring Richard Dreyfuss. It is thought that Streep, Kline, Christopher Walken, Portman and Hoffman are discussing the feasibility of playing a fall run. One would guess any future commercial run would be a strictly limited engagement due to the potential film commitments of the Academy Award-winning stars. Arguably, the two major box office draws would be Streep and Kline, who cut their teeth in New York theatre in the 1970s (particular at The Public), and went on to become international film stars (appearing together in "Sophie's Choice").
Adding fuel to speculation about the production's fortunes was the sudden tenancy shift of the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins. The production was slated for the Booth Theatre for a Nov. 29 opening, but on Aug. 7 Roundabout announced a move across 45th Street to the roomier Music Box. No explanation for the switch was given. The Booth was one of the theatres explored last year by Nichols and The Public when, for a brief time, the team was considering mounting The Seagull in a conventional commercial space. The small Booth may not be the most economical choice: Considering the ticket demand for what has turned into one of the hottest New York tickets in years, the tiny Booth has only 785 seats. Observers suggest a house larger than the Booth is probably being sought.
Since The Seagull began its Central Park stay on July 24, the free tickets have been scarce. The papers have been filled with stories of New Yorkers and out-of-towners waiting hours for tickets to the show, even sleeping overnight. Some in line are even being paid to wait in the heat for the slim chance of getting a coveted ticket. Tickets are not doled out until 1 PM.
In response to demand, the Public Theater added an extra week to the starry production. Talk of a commercial transfer comes as no surprise to those who thought bringing out the big guns of Streep, Kline, Walken and Nichols seemed like such a waste, given the limited number of seats.
Streep, in an interview with The New York Times, said the free, outdoor, open-to-the-masses aspects of the production were alluring to her. "I thought about the celebrities and the baloney of it all," Streep told Peter Marks in The Times. "The limos out in front. I thought, 'Ugh, ugh, ugh.' The park takes the lid off. I love the fact that it's free."
The cast includes Streep as Arkadina, Kevin Kline as Trigorin, Marcia Gay Harden as Masha, Natalie Portman as Nina, Christopher Walken as Sorin, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Konstantin, John Goodman as Shamrayev, Debra Monk as Polina, Stephen Spinella as Medvedenko and Larry Pine as Dorn. The undertaking marks Streep's first stage appearance in 20 years.
The Seagull (1896) is Chekhov's rueful domestic comedy about the life and loves of theatrical family, led by Arkadina, a famous and respected actress, who is nonetheless miserly in her affections and funds. Her tortured experimental playwright son, Konstantin Treplev (Hoffman), loves the mercurial, naive young actress Nina (Portman), who runs off with Arkadina's lover, Trigorin (Kline).
Nichols presents the drama in a straightforward fashion, with set designer Bob Crowley creating a traditional Russian estate with the help of several live birch trees, which flutter in wind and blend in with the natural park scenery. Nichols often uses the park as if it was part of the extended set; noises and voices originate from points far beyond the stage, giving the play a unusual sense of space. The cast is clad is light summer clothing, linen and hats, and communicate in a casual conversational manner, a new sound system allowing the actors to speak at normal volumes and in intimate tones. No major changes have been made to the script, with the exception that a key final scene, which usually occurs off stage, is depicted in full view.
The Public is presenting the Tom Stoppard adaptation, favored by Streep. Designers are Bob Crowley (scenic and costume design), Jennifer Tipton (lighting) and Acme Sound Partners (sound), with Mark Bennett penning original music.