Charles Ludlam often said that he had to create his own theater company because his eccentric style of performance was too out of sync with other actors. Maybe Parker Posey should create her own theater company, too. There’s nothing else quite like her extravagant performance in Thomas Bradshaw’s new play, “The Seagull/Woodstock, NY,” which opened Tuesday at the Pershing Square Signature Center. The Anton Chekhov adaptation is being presented by the New Group.
Because Posey plays the stage actress Irene, her extreme histrionics are apropos. Yet, in the first couple of scenes set at a lakeside summer retreat where Irene’s troubled would-be writer son (Nat Wolff) is presenting his new play to the assembled guests, Posey takes some getting used to.
Those who know Chekov’s play will note the slight switch from Irina to Irene. The character’s son is Americanized a tad more: Here, Konstantin becomes Kevin. Nina, the ingénue and the object of Konstantin/Kevin’s affections, remains Nina (Aleyse Shannon), while dumpy Masha, who loves Konstantin, is now named Sacha (Hari Nef). One thing that definitely doesn’t change in Bradshaw’s very loose update is that no one’s love is returned – except, for a brief moment, when Nina indulges in a fling with Irina’s lover, Boris, who here is renamed William (Ato Essandoh).
But back to Posey. Her performance is expressionistic, to be euphemistic. She shows us all the mechanics – “technique” would be too subtle a word – that go into her vivid performance. This assessment may come off a little backhanded, except for the fact that whenever she’s off stage, we wait impatiently for her return to give the show a needed jolt of her thespian juice.
It helps that Posey gets most of the great one-liners, especially those that are a send-up of today’s New York legit scene. Irene’s mere mention of P.S. 122 early in her career gets a big laugh, and when the theater jokes aren’t delivered by her, they are directed at her. One reference to the White Guilt ending of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fairview” not only hits but demolishes its target. Equally outrageous is the all-female production of “True West” in which Irene and Janet McTeer trade roles every other performance to great acclaim.
In the context of all this talk about bed, Broadway and beyond, Kevin’s play within a play fits like a Capezio leotard, and is funnier and far more extended than Chekov’s original scene.
While Posey does her thing, Wolff performs the formidable task of creating a bridge between her style of acting and that of Shannon, who is ultra-naturalistic in her approach to the craft — that is, until the very end when Nina tears up whatever is left of the stage. Wolff matches the size of Posey’s performance but imbues his with the subtlety of Shannon’s. Fortunately for this “Seagull,” Wolff shares the stage with Shannon and Posey a lot, and as with Chekov’s “Seagull,” those fraught relationships are the play’s super-charged engine.
Much less riveting are the scenes between the play’s two biracial characters, Nina and William. Their long talks about DNA is just one of the reasons we wait for the return of Posey’s egomaniacal Irene. Bradshaw is much more informed about Shubert Alley gossip than he is genetics.
Under Scott Elliott’s direction, some of the other actors (Patrick Foley, Daniel Oreskes, Bill Sage, Amy Stiller) and their supporting characters almost come off superfluous. (To be honest, that’s often my reaction when I see the original.) The exceptions are David Cale’s wonderfully flighty landowner and Nef, who gives Sasha a droll contralto delivery that starts out ridiculously inappropriate before ending up downright tragic.
While Elliott can be faulted for letting the performances run all over the place, he might be just the right director to stage Charles Ludlam’s “Camille” for Posey.