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Lady birds

Women are the focus in a new version of Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’

Saoirse Ronan and Corey Stoll in “The Seagull”

Putting a bittersweet English charm on a Russian classic, this new adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s groundbreaking play “The Seagull” has a contemporary relevance in today’s increasingly gender-inequality-focused society.

Unfolding in the rural outskirts of early 20th century Moscow, this “Seagull” looks, feels, and sounds American, with names and geographic references being the only giveaways to its Russian setting, yet it remains a faithful take on this seminal text of tragicomic cruelty.

A motley assortment of passionate artists has gathered at the country estate of an ailing former civil servant (Brian Dennehy). His sister Irina (Annette Bening), a lauded but aging actress, is visiting with her current lover Boris (Corey Stall), a successful but younger novelist. Irina’s son Konstantin (Billy Howle) is a tortured would-be playwright, neighboring young actress Nina (Saoirse Ronan) is his muse, and Masha (Elisabeth Moss), the plain daughter of the estate’s supervisor, rounds out the party with schoolteacher Mikhail (Michael Zegen).

It’s a maelstrom of overlapping love triangles and unrequited affections in a story of individuals desperate to have the things (and people) that they can’t.

The Seagull‘s bold reliance on subtext is a revolutionary work of modernism. Chekov dialed back overt declarations of what characters were thinking and, instead, wrote dialogue that concealed or talked around true desires, revealing them through action, and often leading to betrayal or despair.

Here, that dynamic begins with the passive-aggressive Irina. A narcissist, she truly sees the world as her stage and everyone else as supplementary, including her son. Her veiled condescension of Konstantin’s scripts is verbalized with sophisticated candor but delivered with genteel contempt, infecting the whole atmosphere like an organized virus. As each person is denied his or her desires, decorum gradually deteriorates.

For as much as Irina is a trigger for conflict, Chekhov is sympathetic to her and to each of the women whose station in life is limited to their looks and marriage prospects. To the extent that Irina and Nina manipulate, it’s an unconscious, learned defense against the male whims of patriarchal privilege. Masha is more pure, but that makes her a heartbreaking victim.

Director Michael Mayer (Tony winner for the musical “Spring Awakening”) shares Chekhov’s empathy as he spotlights the remarkable, complex performances from Bening, Ronan, and Moss repress, lash out, or break down, according to their individual circumstances. The line between each of those states is fragile; when one snaps, emotions become raw.

Mayer doesn’t open up the location much beyond the estate, making this movie feel similar to its staged source, but the craft within those confines is elegant.

“The Seagull’s” 1896 debut was unlike anything that theatre-goers had ever seen before. Mayer and his cast recapture the material’s absurd, volatile torments with the kind of provocative immediacy that Chekhov likely first intended.

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