This fantasy - despite its accompanying, quickly hidden spasm of back pain - keeps Arkadina going. Like everyone in Chekhov's "The Seagull," now on view at off-Broadway's Classic Stage Company, Arkadina desperately wants her actual life to conform to her illusory one.
In a magnificently nuanced performance, two-time Academy Award winner Wiest allows us to understand and almost sympathize with this horribly self-absorbed and vain character.
Her relationship with the young writer Trigorin shows her tenuous connection to reality. As mischievously played by Alan Cumming, Trigorin convinces Arkadina - and himself - into thinking that he's with her because of her beauty and charm, rather than because she's a meal ticket. Both characters display their unhealthy mutual interdepedence in a scene where Trigorin asks to be set free. Wiest allows Arkadina's mask to drop, just for a moment, as she begs and flatters until Trigorin's susceptibility to praise wins out and he agrees to stay.
Set in the country home of her brother Sorin (John Christopher Jones), the first three acts of the play take place during Arkadina's annual summer visit. Sorin, charmingly played by Jones, is full of regret for a life spent living in the country and working as a bureaucrat instead of a writer.
He is the first to arrive at the outdoor premiere of his nephew Konstantin's new play, where we are introduced to the fine supporting cast of disappointed and damaged players - a sort of repertory of regret.
Ryan O'Nan, as Konstantin, is in near-constant motion as he prepares. This manic frenzy carries over to his obsession with Nina, a sweetly naive Kelli Garner, the star of his production. The two rush at and away from each other in a panic - passionate, perhaps, but too dizzying for the audience.
Neshat's Masha, the daughter of Sorin's farm manager, Shamrayev, turns in a somber, sardonic performance. She is as obsessed with Konstantin as he is with the flighty, carefree Nina. She, in turn, is worshipped by the schlubby schoolteacher, Medvedenko, played with hangdog subservience by Greg Keller.
Bill Christ, as Shramrayev, provides comic relief throughout the first half with his bombastic pronouncements on the current state of Russian theater. He disgusts his wife, Paulina (a somewhat shrill Annette O'Toole), as she only has eyes for the unflappable doctor, Dorn (suavely played by David Rasche).
Director Viacheslav Dolgachev (formerly of the Moscow Art Theatre) moves the action fluidly in the first half of the production and does find much of the humor that is usually lacking from Chekhov's comedies.
The second half, however, drags. This is mostly due to an unfortunately dull scene between Konstantin and Nina after their youthful passion and enthusiasm has turned to bitterness and despair. O'Nan and Garner are unable to plumb beneath the surface to convincingly portray these characters as the haunted and heartbroken creatures they are.
The 19th-century period costumes, by Suzy Benzinger, are exquisite. The set design, by Tony Award-winner Santo Loquasto, brilliantly evokes a crumbling and decaying home that simulates the gradual decay of these characters' lives.
This talented cast artfully illustrates the effects of corrosive reality on treasured illusions.
By Julie Reed