Michael Mayer's The Seagull, a fluid and faithful reading of the endlessly remounted stage play by Anton Chekhov, opens and closes with what looks like the same scene. The curtain has just gone down on a final act, and we hear clapping as the camera moves in to focus on leading lady Irina (Annette Bening, in superb command as always), flushed and beaming under the adulation she plainly can't get enough of. Until, that is, someone whispers troubling news in Irina's ear and rushes her away to — where else? — her lush country estate by a lake, where her sick brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy) has taken a turn for the worse.
There's something about art and life here, and by the end, when the scene repeats with implied but crucial differences, the overlap between the two will get a thorough workout. That's if you're paying attention: Like so much of Chekhov's deceptively naturalistic work, The Seagull can be read (and probably was, and will be, in many a Comp. Lit. class) as just another bunch of unhappy Russians gassing on about how life has failed them. But how beautifully this top-drawer cast gases, in playwright Stephen Karam's crafty adaptation of a play that Chekhov insisted was a comedy.
Karam doffs his cap to the darkly funny backbone that Chekhov brought to bear on the well-worn theme of unrequited love. Like many women who depend on their looks for their livelihood and their self-esteem, the actress Irina has taken a much younger lover, successful playwright Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll, aka Congressman Russo in House of Cards). She also cruelly undermines Konstantin, her as-yet-unknown playwright son (a goofily hapless Billy Howle), whose youth provides a constantly unwelcome reminder of her own aging.
Locked in neurotic symbiosis with his mother, Konstantin also pines after Nina (Saoirse Ronan), a fair but fickle maiden on loan from another estate. Nursing grand ambitions of her own, Nina sets her sights at Trigorin, who is never one to turn down firm young flesh. Rounding out this lovelorn crew is a terrifically funny, achingly sad Elisabeth Moss as Masha, the snuff-snorting, liquor-swilling estate manager. She tags miserably along after an irritated Konstantin while swatting away her un-swattable suitor (Michael Zegen), a dull but dependable teacher.