Michael Mayer, who won a Tony for Broadway rock musical/teenage hormone eruption “Spring Awakening,” has directed TV shows, operas, and movies, along with theater. He recently directed “Head over Heels” with the music of the Go-Go’s at San Francisco’s Curran, and on May 18, his movie version of Anton Chekhov’s classic play The Seagull comes out. Mayer didn’t set out to be such a multidisciplinarian—but he thinks it works for him. 

“It does something good to my brain,” said Mayer, drinking coffee in the lobby of San Francisco’s Clift Hotel. “We’re talking about The Seagull now and in an hour and a half I’m going next door to direct a rehearsal of ‘Head over Heels.’ It gives me a fresh look.”

Mayer first read Chekhov in high school when he was home sick one day. In grad school at New York University, Olympia Dukakis was his teacher, and she loved to talk about subtext. There’s a whole lot of subtext in Chekhov, Mayer says, so they often discussed the Russian writer’s work. Mayer remembers feeling like he had a breakthrough doing a scene from the end of The Seagull, where he was playing Konstantin, the frustrated playwright talking to Nina, the woman he loves. 

The idea of doing a movie came up when Mayer was walking down Broadway with his friend, producer Tom Hulce (of Amadeus fame). Hulce suggested setting it in the period, 19th century Russia, but doing it in a modern cinematic style—like a movie, that is, rather than a piece of theater. Mayer said yes immediately to directing the story of a group of friends and family at a lakeside estate embroiled in romance and drama. And both he and Hulce thought of Annette Bening for the role of Irina, the beautiful, vain, funny, imperious, legendary actress who owns the estate with her brother. 

“The next thing I know, I’m at their house in L.A., having Chinese food in their kitchen,” Mayer said about Bening and Warren Beatty. “She said she did that role at A.C. T. as a young girl and always wanted to revisit it. She had done Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ at Mark Taper, and she’s classically trained in theater.”

The movie probably wouldn’t have happened without Bening, Mayer says. 

“She believes strongly in taking risks, and that’s how things happen – you say yes,” Mayer said. “I’m not going to kid myself these actors showed up for no money in 100 degree heat in upstate New York because of me—they did it to work with her. She was the ipso facto producer on this.”

Annette Bening in ‘The Seagull’

There have been other movies made of The Seagull, but Mayer thinks they feel staid and more like theater than a movie. So he hired Tony-winning playwright Steven Karam to adapt Chekhov’s classic work set at a house in the Russian countryside, with everyone in love with someone who’s in love with someone else. 

It’s an impressive group of actors, including Saorise Ronan as Nina, who wants to be an actress; Elisabeth Moss as Masha, the snuff-taking, hard-drinking daughter of the estate’s caretakers (who gets the best lines: In response to a question about why she always wears black, she says, “I’m in mourning. For my life.”); and Corey Stoll, as Boris Trigorin, a famous writer who has come to the estate with Irina.

A critic wrote to Chekhov when the play premiered: “It is life itself onstage with all its tragic alliances eloquent thoughtlessness and silent sufferings.” That’s what makes The Seagull just as relevant now as it was when Chekhov wrote it in 1895, Mayer thinks.

“It’s worked so well through the ages because he’s interested in humanity and it’s not black and white—there are no heroes or villains and that’s what we all are—in the grey area,” Mayer said. “It transcends time and place. The story takes place in Russia but these human beings could exist any time or any place. They’re flawed and imperfect, and they’re all chasing something unattainable whether it’s money or success or love or security. These are all concepts and concepts are never attainable.” 

The Seagull opens in Bay Area theaters this weekend.

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