The Seagull on 16th Street

Comedy
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Editorial Review

Jewish 'Seagull on 16th' Struggles to Take Wing

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 27, 2009

For better or (sometimes) worse, theater people can't keep their mitts off "The Seagull." The play is revived more often than any other of Chekhov's great tragicomedies, occasionally with reinvigorating success, as in the recent Broadway version with Kristin Scott Thomas. At other times the effect can be merely arch, as with an adaptation I once sat through that transferred the events of the play to Long Island's Hamptons of the 1990s.

So now Theater J, a company that focuses on Jewish topics, takes its turn with the piece, and the middling results put the effort somewhere in the average range of the theater world's "Seagull" embrace. The production is called "The Seagull on 16th Street," a reference both to Theater J's location in the D.C. Jewish Community Center and a change in the play's religious makeup: Many of the characters are now Jewish.

And yes, this leads -- in Ari Roth's adaptation of Carol Rocamora's translation -- to the interjection into "The Seagull" of some philosophical Jewish concerns. Here, for instance, a fervently Jewish young Konstantin (Alexander Strain) has nothing but contempt for his callously assimilating mother, the selfish and high-strung Russian actress Arkadina (played by Naomi Jacobson).

The surprise on this occasion is not how provocative the interpretation proves to be, but rather how ephemeral is this incarnation's dramatic impact. Director John Vreeke has assembled a cast of solid actors, some of whom, like a nicely controlled J. Fred Shiffman in the role of the ruminative Dr. Dorn, strike a winning connection with Chekhov. On the whole, however, the story unfolds thinly, as if "The Seagull" were no more momentous than an episode of a passably watchable and mildly funny network drama.

Roth, Theater J's artistic director, has taken pains not to drown the plot in his conceit. At the start of the evening, the actors gather on the stage to talk out, briefly, the notion of making Chekhov's gentile characters Jewish. (It's patterned a bit after the meta-theatrical mechanics of Louis Malle's 1994 film, "Vanya on 42nd Street," in which contemporary actors participate in the filming of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya.")

Then, with some gentle tinkering -- Konstantin's play-within-a-play here is rewritten to be the inaugurating piece of a Jewish theater -- a thoroughly recognizable "Seagull" is performed. You can applaud the adapter's light touch, even if the show lacks the vibrant heartbeat of lives lived quietly but passionately. Although the actors sound credibly conversational, some have a tough time convincingly inhabiting their roles. Jerry Whiddon, for example, as Trigorin, the shallow popular novelist with whom Arkadina is smitten, comes across as a rather tired businessman (not unlike the tired businessman he played so much more aptly -- and resonantly -- last year in Studio Theatre's "Blackbird").

Were the rudiments of "The Seagull" more incisively on display, Roth's concept might be more fun to diagram and discuss. At present, the bones of his idea still await more galvanizing flesh.

The Seagull on 16th Street, an adaptation by Ari Roth of Chekhov's play, from a translation by Carol Rocamora. Sets and costumes, Misha Kachman; lighting, Dan Covey; sound, Matt Nielson. With Veronica del Cerro, Stephen Patrick Martin, Brian Hemmingsen, Nanna Ingvarsson, Mark Krawczyk, Jason McCool, Tessa Klein. About 2 hours 15 minutes.