By Melissa Rose Bernardo
August 24, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
The Seagull: Brigitte La Combe
  • Stage

The cast is something of a midsummer night’s dream: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Marcia Gay Harden, John Goodman, Larry Pine, Debra Monk, Stephen Spinella. At the helm is Mike Nichols. And tickets are free. No wonder people are literally camping out in Central Park to see The Seagull. Apologies to Anton Chekhov, but it’s not his name that’s bringing them in.

So, as a landmark theatrical occasion — which has surpassed ”The Producers” on the hype-o-meter and demands some 15 hours of your time in a ticket line — ”The Seagull” succeeds brilliantly. Credit the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival for pulling this off: It’s where Kline tackled heavies like ”Hamlet,” and where Streep, in the late ’70s, trod the boards in shows such as ”Measure for Measure.” (And where her 21-year-old son, Henry Gummer, is making his New York debut on stage alongside his mother.) Credit NYSF also for blowing the lid off the play: ”The Seagull” is perfect for an open-air stage like the Delacorte. Talk of trees and lakes seems perfectly natural; a throwaway line about a storm rings especially true on a soggy summer evening.

Apparently, it was Streep who selected ”The Seagull,” a tragicomic masterwork that gives her the plum (though smallish) part of Arkadina, an aging actress whose vanity trumps her talent. She’s shacked up with Trigorin (Kline), a Tolstoy wannabe who falls for the nubile Nina (Portman), who’s the beloved of Arkadina’s son, Konstantin (Hoffman). When they’re not professing love or contemplating death, they’re listening to friends and relatives profess love and contemplate death. In Chekhov, this is called comedy.

And though it is frequently funny and moving — partly owing to playwright Tom Stoppard’s fine adaptation — this ”Seagull” is more an event than a well-rendered revival. Nichols may have extended his actors carte blanche, allowing them to walk wherever or do gymnastics if so inclined. (Who knew Streep could cartwheel?) But some handle freedom better than others: Walken, for instance, gives a wonderfully subdued, soulful performance as Streep’s sickly brother, while Hoffman — in a more pivotal part — could afford to turn it up. A bit of the bluster he showed in 2000’s ”True West” would serve him well here. Nor is Portman — another young actor with intelligence and sensitivity to spare — ready to carry the tragic Nina on her slender shoulders.

Of course, not everyone clicks like Streep and Kline. The ”Sophie’s Choice” costars have something so effortless, so intuitive between them that the mind reels imagining what these two could do in other classics: plotting in ”Macbeth,” bickering in ”Much Ado About Nothing,” drinking and pill-popping in ”Long Day’s Journey Into Night”…The possibilities are endless. Their time in ”The Seagull,” regrettably, is not. Barring some alignment of the planets — or of the stars’ schedules — this ”Seagull” shutters Aug. 26.