Nov 10, 2008

Dorn Again

When I look to count my blessings, as I often do, high among them is the chance not only to see some of the best theater in the world but to view it with heightened critical attention, and on occasion to meet and talk to its makers. As much as it can be a relief to see a show as a "civilian," without having to form an opinion or follow up with any coverage, I think I'm now fully conditioned to process and digest works of theater (and any art or entertainment product, in fact) with a critical eye and mind.

Sometimes the assignment can make all the difference. Most of the time my directive is to show up and review the show, without any other frame or filter. There are some exceptions: One of my early gigs for was to cover Rosie O'Donnell's appearance in Fiddler on the Roof--obviously a slightly different mandate from issuing a first-impression judgment of David Leveaux's stark production (count me among the minority who admired it, even with Fierstein and O'Donnell mugging their way through it). When Newsday sent me to review Stephen Karam's Speech & Debate, they wanted me to report on Roundabout's new space as well as review the show.

Then there are the times I see a show with the notion that I'll be interviewing one of the actors. It was in this context that I saw the resplendent new British Seagull; I am (still) meant to speak to Art Malik, who plays the part of the suave, middle-aged Dr. Dorn with a seemingly effortless blend of gravity and charm. What I'm so grateful for, even apart from the chance to speak to this fiercely fine actor, is the chance to see Seagull anew, with a focus on Dorn. It's not an exaggeration to say that viewing the play with this circumspect country doctor in the foreground revolutionized and complicated the play for me, and sharpened the outsized virtues of Ian Rickson's first-rate, often exquisite production.

It occurred to me, as it never had before, how much Dorn recalls Vanya's Astrov, and in turn Chekhov himself: handsome, resolute, clear-eyed, at a remove yet deadly earnest under his facade of nonchalance. It is clearly Dorn who was once the golden-boy heartbreaker of this country district, including for Arkadina; it is Dorn to whom most of the characters turn for a sympathetic ear and who, in Christopher Hampton's incisive new version, pronounces the lot of them, not without love, "neurotic." It is he, famously, who at first blithely conceals the play's tragic denouement from the assembled party, then spills it to Trigorin with flustered horror.

More important in this production, though, is Dorn's relationship to Treplev's short play--the one the serious young writer stages for the guests at the beginning of the show, with Nina in the lead. This ponderous, easily mocked text imagines a time eons away from ours, when some kind of universal spirit can flourish without the encumbrances of living creatures and their petty strivings. Without skewing the play's crucial balance of sympathies (to my mind, all these characters are slightly ridiculous and self-defeating in their individual ways), Rickson makes this play-within-a-play resonate a little more heavily than it usually does.

This in turn transforms Dorn in a crucial way: When he alone among the assembled audience professes to admire the play, and to see Treplev's potential as a writer, it does not come off as the blinkered condescension of an older man trying to be encouraging, as it does in many productions; it attunes us to the play's roiling undercurrent of philosophical contemplation, of existential dread--in short to the play's spiritual dimensions, such as they are. There's a lot of stock placed in "spiritual strength" and the life of the spirit, particularly in the play's later passages--a view that seems counterposed (or is it?) with the doctor's admonition to Sorin to shed the "animal fear" of death. While I think it's clear from the play's conclusion that Chekhov did not share the redemptive worldview of his countrymen Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, he, like Dorn, took questions of life and death, body and spirit, with the empathetic seriousness of one who'd wrestled with them himself and found the effort worthy.

In my own small way, from my aisle seat I have felt similarly blessed.

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