On the Stage: Equus and The Seagull

Seagull4But I’ll let Christopher Hampton, who adapted this version of the play, sum up so much of the appeal of this production when being interviewed by NPR about it. “Somehow we have a tendency to dilute what in Chekhov is quite crisp and quite blunt, actually,” said Hampton. “Chekhov used to be thought of as a lyrical, melancholy kind of writer and he isn’t. He’s a very muscular, energetic, clear, lucid writer. This is the best play that exists about writers and actors.”

This production takes so many of those qualities that Hampton has mined in the original Russian script — the muscularity, the bluntness — and through the, yes, lucid performances of this exemplary cast brings us one of the most pitch-perfect takes on Chekhov’s play I’ve ever seen — including the Mike Nichols directed Shakespeare in the Park one back in 2001 with Meryl Streep in the Arkadina role and the Classic Stage Company’s production this past spring with Diane Wiest as the Russian diva. It’s a tone that is quite difficult to decipher. Indeed, the very first production of The Seagull in 1895 was such a disaster and so rudely received by its audience that the great Russian actress Vera Komissarzhevskaya, who played Nina, the play’s famously disillusioned ingenue, lost her voice during the production. Chekhov himself hid out backstage after the first act and swore never to write another play. It was not until the great director Konstantin Stanislavsky mounted another production of the play at the Moscow Arts Theatre two years later and convinced Chekhov to see it, that the playwright was inspired enough to continue writing.

Seagull3The Nina of this latest production is first-rate, the heartrending Carey Mulligan. She is from the original Royal Court production, as is Mackenzie Crook, who plays Konstantin, the tortured son of Madame Arkadina. Crook, who resembles Wally Cox if he had ever played Kurt Cobain, is one of the strangest looking of leading men and yet also the most compelling. I saw him a few seasons back as one of the inmates in the West End production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that starred Christian Slater. As good as Slater was in that production, it was hard to take one’s eyes off Crook who always crept into one’s line of vision, even when standing completely still. It’s the same quality he has in The Seagull. He’s mesmerizing.

Also outstanding is the young American actress Zoe Kazan as Masha. The night I saw the play she received exit applause in her first scene in the second act. This is the third time I’ve seen Kazan in the last couple of years and she just gets better and better. A major stage actress is developing before our eyes. Peter Sarsgaard is still finding his dramatic legs as Arkadina’s love interest, the middlebrow writer Trigorin. Sarsgaard has a tendency to rely on his patented prissy eccentricity that he so often displays in independent films. He’s not bad just not as good yet as all those who so seamlessly are a part of this splendid ensemble.

If you’ve never seen a Chekhov play, make this your first. If you think you’ve seen too many, convince yourself to see one more and make it this one.

The Seagull, Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street, New York. Ticket information here.

T T T T (out of 4 possible T’s)


  1. says

    Wow — I didn’t realize Towleroad’s theatre guy had a storied past!

    I’m glad to see someone who is less than gushing about the play Equus as written — nice as it is to see a young actor negotiate the tricky path from child star to lead with success, I’ve been squirming over the past year reading all the glowing reviews of this production, because like you I think play’s presentation of psychology is, in a word, dopey.

  2. says

    I’ve loved her ever since her debut in “Under the Cherry Moon” — one of the greatest of all bad films.

    Sarsgaard’s “prissiness” is part of his charm. He seems to have really packed on the punds of late. What is Patty Clarkson feedin g him?

  3. hank says

    I couldn’t agree more about your take on Equus. This is a very uneven production. Casting an obese actor as the lead, made me worry for his health. He seemed overwhelmed by the role, out of breath, and totally lacking the necessary sexuality for any flirtation with the Kate Mulgrew character. Also, I couldn’t hear it at all.

  4. alguien says

    when i was 15 i went to visit my grandmother in new york for a theater week. the first play she took me to see was equus. it made me an anthony perkins fan for life (sorry kevin, i missed you but was greatly impressed, nonetheless, by thomas hulce). i saw some 4 or 5 subsequent performances of it with different casts but no one (not even burton in the movie version) was able to move me quite the way perkins did. he injected a sense of humanity and empathy into that role that no one else ever did. the climactic ending is still seared in my brain to this day-over 30 years later.

  5. Jonathan says

    I’m really sorry to hear that you felt this “Equus” wasn’t up to snuff. I haven’t seen it yet, and after this review, probably won’t.

    The production of “Equus” I saw at the Berkshire Theatre Festival a few years ago, starring Randy Harrison and Victor Slezak, was one of the most mind-blowing, moving, and memorable theatrical experiences I have had in over forty years. I only wish they had been able to bring that production to New York.

  6. tooboot says

    I’m always find psychological dramas interesting. Some are done better than others and this one is at a disadvantage in that the theoretical treatment used is dated, but also the acting style of some of the supporting cast, namely the mother of Alan, was so forced that it seemed incredibly semi-professional for such a highly acclaimed company.
    I didn’t hate the casting of the leads, I think it just placed the focus of the play less in the obvious homoerotic and more in the didactic/intellectual. I heard every word and there were even some laughs. I actually enjoyed the staging.
    I understand the reviewer’s take though, having seen Raul Esparsa in two roles that I have played namely Ned Weeks from The Normal Heart and Bobby from Company. Both of his productions were excellent but my experience was one of revelation, since both productions I was in were community theatre productions in Texas and these were New York and tight. I cringed thinking of how heavy-handed our productions were in comparison.

  7. Brent Marrott says

    I thought the production was very good. I NEVER go by what biased critic’s say. Go judge for yourself. Radcliffe is very convincing. I heard everything very well and my seat was near the back. The ending impact on me was somewhat overwhelming.

  8. says

    Girth? I believe that is a kind euphemism for Richard Griffith’s imposing, upstaging, world-record holding Fat Upper Pubic Area.

    How can anyone concentrate on anything else?

    I tried. And I did feel Equus has some great things to say about the power of religion, but got plodded down with psycho babble and Cap’n Janeway who only seemed to appear with her Hepburn-esque accent in order to give our girthy psychologist somebody to moan at.

    I also really liked Radcliffe, the staging, and those six magnificent man-horses. I’m dying to get my hands on a pair of their high heeled hooves.

  9. iew says

    Shame on you for baring your biases. I saw your Equus. I saw Firth’s. I saw Hulce’s. (I saw Hopkins, Burton, Perkins, and Nimoy.) I’ve seen five other productions over the decades since – none held a candle to that original power and spark of Hopkins and Firth, but all of them at least offered a reason for others to watch. And, regardless of your inability to ‘stomach’ the magnificent Griffiths, you must surely be able to distinguish his finely controlled performance from lethargy — you cannot be that inept. Although Marion Seldes whose posing, pretentiously brittle performance in the original production would make any magistrate appear to be camp – Frances Sternhagen was a lesson in absolute perfection as the mother. My suggestion is that before you present yourself again as object of comparison – you learn to be objective in that comparison.

  10. David says

    Silly biased queens who can’t get past the girth! Richard Griffiths is a magnificent actor. You don’t need to want to fuck him to recognize his talent, particularly in this role. Although this production was a bit lacking, it was more than worth the price of admission to watch him at work. He is an incredibly natural, gifted actor. And how can there be no mention of the magnificent specimen of manhood named Lorenzo Pisoni performing here as the horseman and as Nugget! Getting a good look at him downstage center is also more than worth the price of admission.

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