Odd bird

Ivan Turgenev had paved the way for Anton Chekhov's seething domestic storms in 1850 with his play A Month in the Country, which concerned educated individuals vacationing at a summer home who fail to make a love connection and are rendered miserable by it. He caught great acclaim from the show. But when Chekhov came galloping almost five decades later with the very similar yet vastly superior The Seagull, he was practically chased out of the theater by the opening-night audience: The flamboyant, feverish style of Russian performance rendered the deadpan wit and softly kindling torment ridiculous onstage. The world would not be ready for Chekhov until Konstantin Stanislavski, Russian pioneer of psychological nuance in performance, coaxed a dispirited and reluctant author to restage The Seagull at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898. Suddenly, people understood the précis qualities of the dialogue: It was crisp, clipped shorthand for the powerful emotions that churned within. Ticketbuyers had an epiphany: A dramatic hint could serve as a more engrossing theatrical experience than all the melodramatic harangues in the world, provided actors could be trained to both master and be guided in their stage pauses and silences by Chekhov's unadorned dialogue.

Almost a century later, the Dallas Theater Center reminds us that irony, implication, and suggestion can still be difficult things to telegraph to an audience with Richard Hamburger's The Seagull. Make no mistake, the opening-night performance was a fleet and lively affair, with the cast of visiting and resident actors getting much comic mileage out of Chekhov's blunt mercy, the way he gives his characters the space to say and do the most unflattering things yet never lets his audiences forget that these words and actions often spring from some of the purest, most noble intentions. Almost everyone in the cast of The Seagull really does want the universe to be a more accommodating place, but they go about it trying to accommodate themselves first at the expense of another's agenda. Where Hamburger's cast runs into problems (or, specifically, where two of the leads get tangled in a thicket of conflicted moods) is toward the end, when comedy hands the baton to tragedy and, suddenly, we are meant to realize that all this charming befuddlement is filling the nostrils and lungs of two earnest young would-be artists, leaving them stricken and gasping.

A group of bohemians and professionals gathers for a lakeside sojourn in the Russian countryside, with mistress of ceremonies being the imperious and self-centered aging actress Irina (Patricia Hodges). She has brought her monosyllabic novelist lover Trigorin (Charles Shaw Robinson) to this gathering, a move that irks Irina's pretentious aspiring-writer son Konstantin (Adrian La Tourelle) to no end. Fawning Nina (Diana LaMar) wants more than anything to be a stage actress, despite implicit threats from her straitlaced, disapproving family, and seems to think that Konstantin, who loves her so intensely that his feelings are a sickness, may be the most direct route to this goal with the difficult "new forms" he's penning for the stage. What makes the behavior of this rather self-absorbed quartet at the center of The Seagull so suspenseful (and Richard Hamburger's staging so compulsively watchable, even if you think you're familiar with this play) is that we're never sure who possesses genuine talent and who is simply an accomplished bullshit artist. Trigorin and Irina have enjoyed great success in their respective fields, but both reveal chilling layers of superficiality (especially Trigorin, whose easygoing, "I'd rather be fishing" manner masks an icy amorality) while Konstantin and Nina are solipsistic and fame-hungry, respectively, but begin to show startling hints of ability. Intriguingly, you're left on your own to surmise who among these might truly be favored by the muses.

Director Hamburger has turned up the volume on fatalistic humor in The Seagull, best symbolized in a handy, ovation-earning comic performance by Julie Dretzin as Masha, a woman who's in "mourning for her life" and eventually marries Mevedenko (Chamblee Ferguson), a man she does not love, for practical reasons. Dretzin is hilariously grim, but at what point does sarcasm turn into sorrow? This is the dusty crossroads that makes The Seagull so shockingly contemporary, and the effort to locate this transition separates the stage artist from the craftsperson. The final, haunting scene between Nina and Konstantin, in which he is beginning to earn success as a writer and also becoming aware of what may be an arrested sensibility, and she is on the moral and financial skids yet may be finding her voice as a stage performer, found audience members unsure of how to react, as some snorted laughter and others sat in stunned silence. The disparate response robbed this convergence of painful confessions of some of its power, but it's unclear who deserves blame: Was it the fault of Hamburger and the cast, the dead playwright who makes perfecting his tricky tone well nigh impossible, or the late-20th-century Dallas audience? In a popular culture ringed by endless concentric circles of irony, this inchoate onstage concoction of anguish and gentle mockery made for a single discordant note that, once struck, hung ominous in my ears for hours afterward.