Playwright Thomas Bradshaw retains the spirit of one of Chekhov’s most celebrated works while bringing it sharply into present day America with his adaptation, The Seagull/Woodstock, NY, currently receiving its world premiere Off-Broadway produced by The New Group at Pershing Square Signature Center.
As the title suggests, the action has been transposed from rural Russia to Woodstock in the Hudson Valley region of upstate New York, with the retreat from or draw of Moscow (depending on the character’s perspective), becoming Manhattan. “Theatre famous” Irene (Parker Posey) has come up to the house that she co-owns with her gay best friend since their drama days at Vassar, Samuel (David Cale), who gave up his acting career before it started to become a corporate lawyer. While Irene went on to become a Tony-winning Broadway star, also taking on screen work such as “that ghastly Nora Ephron movie”, as Samuel puts it, which helped her to buy her share of the house. She’s there for a brief summer break from the city with her partner—renowned novelist William (Ato Essandoh)—which causes immediate friction with Irene’s aspiring playwright son, Kevin (Nat Wolff). He lives in Woodstock full-time with Samuel and the pair are extremely close; Kevin calls him uncle, confides in him, and is there to care for him as his health deteriorates.
They’re joined at the house by some of their wealthy neighbours; Kevin’s girlfriend, fledgling actress Nina (Aleyse Shannon); brain surgeon Dean (Bill Sage); banker Darren (Daniel Oreskes), his long-suffering wife Pauline (Amy Stiller), and their daughter Sasha (Hari Nef). Sasha is a young woman distraught by her unrequited love for Kevin, while public school teacher Mark (Circle Jerk’s Patrick Foley) is in turn infatuated with, but rejected by Sasha.
The first act opens with Kevin intensely focused on preparing the outdoor stage he’s constructed to present his new play to the assembled guests. It’s an experimental monologue that he’s written for Nina to perform, with the intention of determinedly dismantling the fourth wall to confront and interact with his audience. He addresses topics such as an increase in masturbation during the recent Covid-induced period of isolation and the apparent inconsistency in the acceptable use of the N-word. The show comes with a trigger warning horn that’s sounded by Kevin from the side of the stage, which is more offensive to the ear than any word is likely to be. While most of the audience is relatively engaged and amused by the play, Irene—the only person Kevin really cares about impressing—is left embarrassed and enraged, bringing the performance to a premature close and demanding, “Haven’t you heard that Black Lives Matter?” She’s also unsettled by William’s obvious fascination with Nina, who is decades his junior and, as part of the play, invited him on stage to see her naked in a bathtub behind a curtain.
It’s a night that will prove to be significant in all of their lives. Even three years on, when the fourth act is set, Kevin’s stage hauntingly remains standing in the grounds, reminding them of what transpired.
While the names have all been Americanized (with the exception of Nina), Chekhov’s characters remain recognizable in Bradshaw’s faithful but bitingly current adaptation, with some purposeful changes. For instance, Nina is biracial. Her Black mother has passed away and she now lives with her overbearing white dad and white stepmother, leading to some interesting conversations about race with William, who is Black and intrigued by his European heritage. Surrounded by white people, when they’re alone they are able to talk about race in a way that they are unlikely to in the others’ company. While the only characters who are specified as being white in Bradshaw’s script, Kevin and Irene, make their own observations. Kevin tells Irene at one point that he believes that the only reason William has had success as a writer is because he’s Black, and Irene has questions for William about why she’s never known him to sleep with any Black women.
Although less broad in its depiction of course, there are shades of Eddie and Saffy’s dynamic in Absolutely Fabulous between parent and child here, a relationship that’s at the heart of the play. It leads to a standout scene between Kevin and Irene after the young man has harmed himself. The love between them is palpable, and there are glimmers of maternal instincts in Irene, but there’s a complex web of resentment that prevents them from getting too close.
While the entire ensemble impresses in a play of battling egos, Parker Posey is spectacular as the narcissistic Irene, making the most of every moment she’s on stage in a beautifully layered performance that manages to strike the perfect balance between conveying the character’s self-absorbed arrogance and allowing us to see the fragility and insecurity that lies beneath. As a character, Irene is deliciously showy and attention-grabbing, making everything that happens somehow about her, but Posey’s performance is nicely calibrated and nuanced and never overbearing itself. Posey’s pinpoint comic timing and hysterical delivery are a delight to witness up close. Wolff brings a compelling internal intensity to Kevin, and through Bradshaw’s modern lens we have more understanding and sympathy for the character’s emotional instability and mental health than in previous incarnations of the play.
Hari Nef (who was outstanding in Jeremy O. Harris’ Daddy in the same theatre in 2019) is terrific as the perpetually melancholy Sasha. Nef conveys so much with Sasha’s dejected, rather rigid physicality, something that Irene comments on when she compares how much better she looks than her despite the major age difference between them. Although Sasha appears to enjoy wallowing in her own misery to some extent, Nef makes the character’s pain tangible and moving. She has a real flare for comedy and gets some of the evening’s biggest laughs with her dry delivery. While Essandoh has a captivating presence as William, exuding an easy confidence, charisma, and sex appeal. David Cale brings an an appealingly warm and mellow vibe to avuncular queer elder Samuel, making a welcome contrast to the other more brittle energies on stage. It’s refreshing to see an older gay character depicted in such rich detail; a longterm HIV survivor, who unashamedly shares his sexual fantasies.
Qween Jean’s costumes further inform the characters, with Irene’s wardrobe moving from flamboyant to luxuriously sombre as she mostly views the world through her rose-tinted glasses. Then there’s the funereal functionality of Sasha long-sleeved black tops and pants that match her mood.
Director Scott Elliott (Founding Artistic Director of The New Group) sets an intoxicatingly unhurried pace evocative of a monied summer retreat (however tense) without letting the comedic rhythm dissipate, creating an atmosphere that suggests that this is a place far removed from the world that quickly feels like the centre of it with Irene’s arrival.
With its play-within-a-play and references to Hamlet (as there were in the original), there’s a theatrical self-awareness that’s enhanced by frequent references to the plays Irene has been in and the venues she’s performed at, while Kevin criticizes what’s deemed to be classic within American theatre. Derek McLane’s gorgeously simple set design positions the playing space in the round, lending an intimacy that feels like we’re right there with the characters. With its wooden boards, the space intentionally reads as a stage, with the suggestion that we are watching the performers behind the closed red velvet curtain that dominates it. At the top of the show, as we’re taking our seats, we’re reminded that these are actors about to perform, with the cast stretching and warming up in front us, before arranging the set for Act I. It echos Kevin’s production that seeks to break the fourth wall, and just as Nina speaks to the assembled audience in Woodstock, so do Kevin and Nina directly address us at times, and we’re even encouraging us to clap and sing along to some of the song choices (I didn’t think I’d ever hear a Whitney track in a Chekhov play). The proximity of the audience to the actors allows Cha See to push his lighting design, taking things to almost candlelight levels in the final act, as the mood shifts increasingly darker.
Bradshaw’s adaptation is frequently hilarious. In fact, I was laughing so much throughout that I thought the more dramatic moments might not hit as hard when they came, but the production powerfully builds to a deeply affecting and suitably abrupt conclusion. This is a supremely satisfying night of theatre, and one not to be missed.
By James Kleinmann
The Seagull/Woodstock, NY officially opened on February 28th, 2023 and is playing a strictly limited Off-Broadway engagement through April 9th, 2023. For more details and to purchase tickets head to TheNewGroup.org.
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