January 28, 2005
43 twists on 'Seagull' scene
There are veritable novels of subtext buried in Chekhov's plays. Typically actors and scholars are the specialists who plumb those depths between the lines, but with "The Nina Variations," playwright Steven Dietz joins in, taking apart the heartbreaking penultimate scene of "The Seagull" like a watch repairman spilling gears out of an old timepiece.
In 43 brisk iterations, Dietz tinkers with the scene's clockwork to see if Treplev, Chekhov's suicidal young writer, can "rewrite" his final encounter with Nina, the neophyte actress who's returned from Moscow bruised by love and humbled by the stage. In director Hope Alexander's L.A. premiere staging, Dietz's irreverent wit comes through in spades. "A seagull to a lake?" Nina (Khamara Pettus) asks of the play's portentous central image. As Treplev, long-faced, middle-aged Alan Altshuld makes the writer's complaints and equivocations fretfully funny, particularly when he momentarily acquires a knowing, sarcastic bite. "If we can't have strong feelings about things we know nothing about," he wonders, "how could we ever fall in love?"
The show is less successful as a meditation on faith and discontent, partly because Alexander has two other Ninas onstage: one a 50-ish broad (Bobbi Stamm) with a ladies-who-lunch swagger, the other an amorphous, flighty creature (Maria Kress). This proves more distracting than revealing, since by herself the mercurial Pettus captures all of Nina's facets, from naive to wised-up.
Lighting designer Dan Weingarten bathes Alexander's crumpled-paper set in a rainbow of lovely hues. If only the show achieved as wide a spectrum of feeling and insight.
"The Nina Variations," the Company Rep, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 19. $15 to $22.50. (866) 811-4111. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes.