‘The Seagull/Woodstock, NY’ is a devilishly fun time with people who are the absolute worst
Ato Essandoh and Parker Posey shine in Thomas Bradshaw’s tragicomic take on the aristocracy
Playwright Thomas Bradshaw has a reputation for tap dancing on third rails, cemented by previous works such as Job, Prophet, and Thomas & Sally — yes that Thomas and that Sally.*
With The Seagull/Woodstock, NY, presented by The New Group at New York’s Signature Theatre, Bradshaw turns his katana blade of a pen toward his own professional community with devastating, hilarious relish.
The stage for The Seagull/Woodstock, NY (an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s 1895 classic) is surrounded by the audience on three sides, the better to draw theatergoers into the show’s cocoon of egotism and self-destructive messiness. Director Scott Elliott (who is also artistic director of The New Group) opens the show with a singalong of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Our House,” the actors breaching the fourth wall to encourage the audience to join them in the hippie-dippie limousine liberal fellowship that’s about to take place.
Beware. The verdant woods and placid lake of a present-day upstate New York summer retreat are a safe space — until they’re not.
And that’s when things get good.
A group of Theatre People has converged to witness the debut work of a struggling new playwright, Kevin (Nat Wolff). Kevin’s mother, Irene (a deliciously rendered swirl of cruel honesty and self-absorbed vacuity played by Parker Posey) is a Tony-winning Broadway fixture staving off decline and high on her own supply of glamour, social connections, and celebrity. She and her dishy boyfriend William, a famous author, played by Ato Essandoh, and their longtime friends have come up from New York City to bear witness — well, sort of. Irene has Wailers tickets for the same evening, and wonders why Kevin and his lovely girlfriend Nina (a perfectly cast Aleyse Shannon) can’t just do the first act instead of the whole two-hour production.
It turns out that the first act — a hacky, horny, angry rendering of Kevin’s mother — is plenty of catalyst for the unspooling of everyone’s discontents. Nina’s not actually attracted to Kevin, though she is fascinated by his mother. Kevin, a bundle of self-loathing and rudderless ennui, has no eyes for Sasha (Hari Nef), the woman who pines for him to no avail. The play’s other characters revolve like satellites around these four as their lives get progressively messier, unwittingly spinning toward tragedy.
It’s a devilishly fun time with a set of people who are the absolute worst. Posey breezily lances the comic epicenter of more lines than it’s possible to list. Among them: “Try not to be so unhappy” (to Kevin, moments after she’s informed him that his work “isn’t good enough to get produced at a dinner theater in Kansas City.”).
Bradshaw approaches Chekhov and the New York drama scene with a palpable distaste for dilettantism. The name of William’s awful-but-popular novel, Days and Nights, refers to an unfortunate screen adaptation of The Seagull with the same title. At the center of Essandoh’s cool construction of William is a hot shiv, one nearly obscured by the actor’s confident eroticism — that is, until William opens his mouth to run game on Nina. He recycles an idea from Bulworth to the enraptured 23-year-old who cannot yet distinguish between talent, mystique, and a big ole cumulonimbus of bull. Behold:
NINA: You are a citizen of the world!
WILLIAM: I am! I always knew racial dichotomy was false, and tried to reject it, but it’s hard when society is constantly sending the message that black people are fundamentally different from white people.
NINA: How did you reject it?
WILLIAM: By seeing myself as an individual. Nothing about my life should be predetermined by the color of my skin. I shouldn’t have to dress a certain way, vote a certain way, listen to particular music, or pay any attention to the skin color of the people I choose to love. I actually think interracial marriage is the key to eradicating racism.
NINA: Explain, please.
WILLIAM: The children of interracial couples will see that racial stereotypes are nonsense. They’ll understand that race is nothing but a social construct, a concept that people understand theoretically, but don’t really believe in their bones. Interracial children are the glue that will one day bond our sad, broken country.The Seagull/Woodstock, NY
I practically hooted with laughter. If it wasn’t already clear who’d drawn Bradshaw’s ire, a consequential prop — an issue of The Atlantic — provided a clue.
Some may be perplexed by The New Group’s choice to produce an adaptation of Russia’s most famous playwright a year into that nation’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. At the beginning of the war in 2022, major arts organizations, including the Metropolitan Opera, jettisoned relationships with famed artists close to president Vladimir Putin, including opera singer Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev. But Chekhov died at age 44 in 1904. And in 2018, four years after Putin invaded and forcibly annexed Crimea, the author Boris Fishman answered the question “what would Chekhov say of Vladimir Putin?” with a piece for Lit Hub.
“Perhaps the saddest way in which Chekhov remains relevant for our times is how accurate, in spirit, his portrait of Russia remains: power without account; greed, nepotism, and boot-licking; stability at the expense of freedom … [Chekhov] wouldn’t say anything about Putin,” Fishman asserted. “He might write a story about Putin’s press secretary misplacing the cufflinks the President gave him, which sends him into such a frenzy that he commits a crime so the most noticeable thing about his wrists is the handcuffs around them. Except that law enforcement doesn’t dare touch the President’s circle, and the poor man remains free, his torment in full view. (It would be called: “Cufflinks.” Or: “The Press Secretary.”)”
This ability to pierce a thing without announcing that he’s doing it is what Bradshaw has so richly and ably retained in his adaption of The Seagull. In film, an era of widening income inequality has spawned a minitrend of eat-the-rich sadism that offers more wish fulfillment than satire. (See: Triangle of Sadness, Glass Onion, and The Menu.) Chekhov, and Bradshaw, as his modern interpolator, ground their final acts in the predictability of human nature. Left to their own devices, the narcissistic denizens of Woodstock will soon get their just desserts, and they will choke on them.
*Jefferson and Hemings
The Seagull/Woodstock, NY runs at Pershing Square Signature Theatre through April 9.