I once asked a theater professor why Chekhov’s plays are called “comedies,” when there are often more belly-laughs in an IRS form for farm equipment deductions. “The failures of great people are tragic, and the failures of small people are comic,” he explained.
I thought about that while watching “Stupid F------ Bird,” Aaron Posner’s riff on Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” Posner has loosely kept the form of Chekhov’s romantic round-robin, boiling four acts down to two, and he has followed Chekhov’s emotional line: With one exception, the characters are petulant, vain, self-absorbed and usually self-pitying. The exception, an ill physician played with gentle humor by Rob Addison, is melancholic.
You do laugh out loud with Posner. He not only updates the story to our time – there’s a stinging Donald Trump joke – and moves it to America but deconstructs it. Actors question the audience (and expect answers), speak to each other as actors rather than characters, even talk about how to deconstruct a play.
We’re further distanced from these often ridiculous folks, which makes their foibles funnier. At the same time, moments of profound emotion can’t resonate as they might in Chekhov. We’re told so often that we’re watching a play – not real people – that a nervous breakdown leaves us thinking, “It’s just someone pretending to have a nervous breakdown.” (To be fair, Chekhov’s original scene may be the least convincing meltdown in serious modern drama.)
The romantic follies here unfold as they did 121 years ago for the Russian playwright, whose masklike visage hangs over Chip Decker’s set. Decker also directed, stressing irony; that tone goes well with James Sugg’s pessimistic songs.
Good-natured Dev (Jeremy DeCarlos) has a crush on Mash (Carmen R. Lawrence), who yearns in turn for semi-revolutionary playwright Conrad (Chester Shepherd). He’s obsessed with Nina (Mariana Bracciale), an amateur actress in one of his amateur theatricals. She moons over sophisticated but shallow author Trigorin (Scott A. Miller), but he’s already claimed by acclaimed actress Emma (Becca Worthington) – who happens to be Conrad’s unhelpful mother.
At first, the audience’s affections are evenly divided among these romantic mooncalfs. But as in Chekhov, empathy turns to exasperation, as they continue to do nonsensical things over and over. (Conrad especially needs a good slap, despite Shepherd’s engaging performance. The dude never stops whining about his yen for shallow, silly Nina.)
Chekhov’s first two-thirds resonate more than the last, and Posner follows that pattern. Yet at the end, he pulls us up strongly; characters leave behind Muscovite gloom to tell us how their lives turned out. We see at last how much like us they are, and our hearts go out to them. With the play’s deconstruction complete, we’re connected more strongly to it than ever.
P.S. ATC has done the first four plays of its season in different venues, including “Bird” at Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus. (Look for Myers Park Traditional Elementary School.) Decker gave Thursday’s audience good news: The city has approved ATC’s exterior plans for its new permanent home at 2219 Freedom Drive, and he expects the interior plans to be approved this week.
‘Stupid F------ Bird’
When: Through April 15 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Also 7:30 p.m. April 11.
Where: Queens University's Hadley Theater, 2132 Radcliffe Ave.
Running time: 150 minutes with one intermission.