Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Seagull (2001)

Natalie Portman & Philip Seymour Hoffman
(The Public Theatre)
August, 2001. We were in New York City. My wife’s play Angst:84, following a rousing premiere at Dobama’s Night Kitchen, was being presented at the fifth annual New York International Fringe Festival.

Angst:84 is a satirical adaptation of Orwell’s classic 1984, reimagined to take place in an oppressive suburban high school in the actual year 1984. Requiring a company of fourteen, most of the cast were actual teenagers, or in their early 20s. A skeleton crew of techies (myself included, running sound) brought the entire team to around twenty.

Remounting and presenting the show (which included a bank of actual lockers, schlepped all the way from Ohio) was a labor-intensive event. Just raising funds before we left and rehearsing the show in the Dobama space took up a great deal of time during the summer, which was a welcome distraction for my wife and I, who were only just beginning to recover from losing our first child that March.

Once the production was under way in the Present Company space on Stanton Street on the Lower East Side (since demolished, now high-end apartments) we had time to unwind, and roam the city. I passed on an invitation to see the Twin Towers, a decision I have come to regret.

The "Angst:84" company in front of the Present Company.
Some hit TKTS for Broadway shows. I saw sixteen different fringe performances, sometimes entirely on my own. My wife and I wanted to try and get seats for The Seagull, produced by the Public Theatre in Central Park. We had exactly and only two days, back-to-back in which we had no performances, and we would need them in order to see this show.

Normally, as we had that June when we had seen Billy Crudup and Joe Morton in Measure for Measure at the Delacorte, you might need to show up before breakfast to wait in line for the free tickets they handed out around lunch.

But the line for The Seagull started the afternoon before, as soon as that day’s tickets were gone. Because every single artist in the production was a headliner. It didn’t just star Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, though that would have been enough. It was directed by Mike Nichols, working with a new translation by Tom Stoppard, and also featured Christopher Walken, John Goodman, Natalie Portman, Marcia Gay Harden, Stephen Spinella, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Konstantin. This was to be a legendary production. And the tickets were free.

Reading in line.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Konstantin. Philip Seymour Hoffman was Konstantin.

The wife and I put out the call that we intended to wait in line, all night, for these tickets. We thought perhaps a few would join us, but seriously, that might sound a little ominous, spending the night in Central Park. Or possibly tedious. But these were teenagers, young adults. The entire company showed up, around 4 PM on a Wednesday, to wait for tickets to see a show on Thursday night.

There were already about a hundred people in line at 4 PM. We’d brought blankets, pillows, folding chairs, and picnic dinners. There were more than twenty of us, as several had New York area friends join in.

Central Park after dark.
We took turns, sitting and wandering the park. Sun began to set as that evening’s performance began. A group of us walked by Belvedere Castle and the lower reservoir which provides the backdrop for the performance, behind the stage for the Delacorte, and watched the performance from there. We walked the Ramble, and visited Strawberry Fields after dusk.

We exited the park, picked up a small bag of groceries, and reentered the park around West 81st Street. The play had ended, crowds were streaming out. As we approached the theater, a gaunt, six-foot man with a beard, sixtyish, wearing a tight black T-shirt and jeans strode past us with great purpose (and a briefcase.) Just as he passed, I realized it was Christopher Walken.

In the gutter on CPW.
It was a perfect summer evening. In the past they used to hand out the tickets a couple hours before curtain, instead of at noon, and in 1990 some of us waited to see Denzel Washington in Richard III. It was a hot day, bright with sun, but between five and eight the clouds rolled in and the show was rained out. This night was balmy and warm -- it was a hot fringe festival that year -- cooling off only slightly as the sun went down.

Once upon a time, waiting in line all night would have been uneventful. But Rudy Giuliani was mayor, and park hours were strictly enforced. We knew this going in, but weren’t sure exactly how that would work. As we understood it, the entire line would be made to relocate to Central Park West for the hours of 1 AM to 6 AM, when the park was closed to the public.

For better or for worse, there was a team of line enforcers, NYC theater patrons who were particularly enthusiastic about catching and shaming line-jumpers. A few hours before midnight, they went down the line creating a list of everyone on line. They were fierce, announcing that though they had no association with the park, the theater or the city, once the line returned to the park they would use this list to check for line-jumpers.

This also happened.
Whatever. Sure enough at 1 AM the NYPD politely (yes) told the line we had to leave the park. We did our best to maintain our relative place in line, those of us who had actually fallen asleep groggily staggering out to the cobblestones of CPW. I actually did try to fall asleep there, for a few moments, lying on the sidewalk, around West 82nd Street, the streetlights creating something like sun. But mostly we sat up and talked and played card games. Some even played guitar.

Settling back into the park after dawn, the line patrol came through with their list. There were a few altercations but nothing serious, not where we were sitting. The wait from then until noon may have been the most tedious, excitable teenagers (and me) finally succumbing to exhaustion and getting a few winks in, beneath the trees. There were also bagels. We finally got our tickets and went our separate ways for the afternoon, many of us to get some real sleep.

What can I say about the performance? There are indelible moments, pictures in my mind which I will never forget. There was a second or two, deep into the first act … Kevin Kline (as the famous author Trigorin) had been on stage for perhaps twenty minutes, and I was momentarily, mentally pulled out of the performance, thinking how I had seen this man in numerous movies, but that I had never before seen him exist in real space and time, not without close-ups or edits. He was just there.

Breakfast en plein air.
That moment Trigorin (Kline) and the actress Arkadina (Meryl Streep) share a passionate kiss on the floor, which he deftly breaks, fluidly rolling over, pulling a notebook and pencil from his vest to make a note. The then-twenty year-old Natalie Portman as the aspiring actress Nina, upon securing a promise from the famous, older writer, executing a neat, bubbly pirouette, like a bird-hop, unable to contain her excitement. Meryl Streep did a cartwheel.

And Hoffman as Konstantin, a man doomed as a writer and a lover, who in this production controversially shot himself on-stage (rather than, as indicated by the Chekhov’s stage directions, off) facing upstage, toward the reservoir, seated in a high-backed chair, the stain bleeding through during the play’s final moments.

That ending, so startling and disorienting, it was hard to believe the play was over. The applause was grand but strange.

Playwright in sunglasses (center).
And so, our adventure concluded, we exited the house. Some wanted to try and catch some stars -- the very location of the theater makes it impossible for actors to jump in a car and speed away, like Walken the night before, they had to leave on foot. Or, in the case of Marcia Gay Harden, wearing a bicycle helmet. She was very generous with her time, talking to several admirers. My wife and I held back from our crowd; I try to leave people I don’t actually know alone unless I really have something I want to ask or tell them.

A small number of us were decided where we would go next, to decompress, hopefully with dessert. John Goodman (who is, in fact, very large) walked past, and one of our team, Brian (he said I can tell this story) was overcome with excitement and took off down the path to have words with the famous actor.

We watched from a distance as our colleague said a few enthusiastic words to Goodman. Goodman gave our friend a strange smirk before turning away abruptly and walking into the dark. Brian returned, shaking his head. “That was weird,” our friend said. “I told him how great the show was and he just kind of blew me off.”

Meryl Streep & Kevin Kline
(The Public Theatre)
Oh, well, we said. Actors. Half a dozen or so of us decided to head a few blocks west to Cafe Lalo. I hadn’t been there in over five years, I had fond memories of hanging out there for hours, writing, while my wife (we had only just started dating in the mid-90s) worked her shift at Shakespeare & Co. Two sites for two Meg Ryan movies. Weird.

Anyway, pastry and coffee and conversation when all of a sudden Brian, he who accosted John Goodman, shook his head, dazed and gasped, “Oh, my GOD!

“I said to John Goodman, ‘I just saw the show -- tell Kevin Kline he was amazing!’”

"Angst:84" by Toni K. Thayer is available from Heartland Plays, Inc.

"The Seagull" a new film adaptation starring Annette Bening and Saoirse Ronan, directed by Michael Mayer, with a screenplay by Stephen Karam, opens June 15, 2018.

Many thanks to Heather Stout Nebeker for the Central Park photos!

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