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Theater : Chekhov's 'Seagull' Wings It Among Multiple Casts at Matrix

October 31, 1994|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Chekhov poured a lot of anguish about the act of writing into "The Seagull," and in the production of the play now at the Matrix Theatre, some actors best known for their TV work pour a lot of anguish about acting into it too.

The Matrix features two revolving casts in the story of Konstantin (Kurt Deutsch/Alastair Duncan), the tortured young writer; Arkadina (Barbara Babcock/Penny Fuller), his great-lady-of-the-theater mother; Nina (Julia Campbell/Anna Gunn), the aspiring actress who is his muse, and Trigorin (Robert Foxworth/Cotter Smith), the worldly author Nina worships.

Both casts (I saw only one) are directed by Milton Katselas, one of L.A.'s premiere acting teachers. As a director, Katselas seems much more interested in indulging individual performances than in supplying one coherent vision of Chekhov's haunted artists.

Unfortunately, one wants not to indulge but to throttle most of these performers. Deutsch's Konstantin complains of his mother's selfishness while draping himself all over his uncle's lap like a kvetchy baby; his histrionic self-absorption would out-emote anything his mother could possibly come up with. In the last act, life has taught Konstantin to be sober, and Deutsch achieves this by looking disconcertingly like Ryan O'Neal disapproving of Barbra Streisand in "What's Up, Doc?"

Campbell reduces Nina from a girl shimmering with an appetite for the beauty of the world to an annoying suck-up. She throws back her shoulders, thrusts her breasts forward and pants with ambition even before she sees Trigorin and has a suitable outlet for all her heaving. This reading of Nina has the unfortunate effect of rendering her none too bright and making Trigorin's seduction of her a very sleazy affair; she is not touching but transparent.

So too is Babcock's Arkadina, although hers is not nearly so primitive a performance. Her alarm at considering Nina's youth and its possible effect on Trigorin is quite obvious, yet we are asked to believe she is a great (or at least a famous) actress on the Russian stage.

Katselas turns the Act Three scene in which Arkadina pleads, bullies and does anything she must to get Trigorin to stay with her into a kind of raging burlesque, a knock-down fight that ends with Arkadina pulling her lover's head by his hair to her breast. Other liberties with the text, such as when Konstantin rushes at Nina with a shotgun, at times give this production the quality of a Mel Brooks parody of what can happen when Hollywood meets Chekhov.

*

As the snuff-using Masha, Jeanie Hackett resembles an unstable high school coke addict, but she's at least amusing, with one notable exception. She manages to drown one of the funniest opening lines in all of theater. When the schoolteacher Medvedenko (Richard Kind/Gregory Cooke) asks her why she's dressed in black, Hackett's Masha answers, "I'm in mourning . . . (turns to audience, waits a beat, flings a bunch of dried flowers) . . . for my life."

As Dorn, the doctor, Jeffrey Tambor employs the big-eyed, uncomprehending stare that makes his character on the Garry Shandling show so great, and it works here for him when he's pushing valerian drops on everyone like Valium. But, when he's a man of the material world rhapsodizing about what it must be like to be an artist, the same expression makes the character a tad more fatuous than is necessary.

This is one of Chekhov's most romantic plays in that most of the characters attach romantic notions to the art of writing. Just as Dorn imagines that creating must be like soaring, Nina believes it to be the greatest human ecstasy. And Arkadina's elderly brother, Sorin (Stephen Elliott/Robin Gammell), is the most romantic of all.

In that role, Elliott gives a performance that actually hints at the vast melancholy and amusement that Chekhov took in observing the world. He describes himself as "the man who wanted"--the man who wanted to become so many things that he did not. When he talks about writing, his eyes grow dreamy behind thick glasses as he imagines the glory of what it must be like "even to become a second-rate writer." Here Elliott captures the perhaps Old World sensation of believing the ability to capture life on paper is one of God's great gifts.

In its press material, the Matrix notes that "each role will be shared by at least two actors, with different combinations creating a new experience each night." Of course, no two performances are ever alike anyway, but in the case of "The Seagull," one hopes they are as different as possible.

* "The Seagull," Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m. Ends Dec. 18. $15. (213) 852-1445. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Barbara Babcock: Penny Fuller Arkadina

Julia Campbell: Anna Gunn Nina

Kurt Deutsch: Alastair Duncan Konstantin

Robert Foxworth: Cotter Smith Trigorin

Stephen Elliott: Robin Gammell Sorin

Richard Kind: Gregory Cooke Medvedenko

Charles Hallahan: George Dicenzo Shamraev

Joyce Van Patten: Lorna Raver Pauline

Jeanie Hackett: Sharon Lawrence Masha

Jeffrey Tambor: Lawrence Pressman Dr. Dorn

A Matrix Theatre Company production. By Anton Chekhov. Directed by Milton Katselas. Set by Michael Devine. Lights by Doc Ballard. Costumes by Todd Roehrman. Composer J.A.C. Redford. Sound by Jon Gottlieb. Production stage manager Jill Ragaway.

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