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Off-Broadway's medley of Chekhov moods -- and a Williams revival

Two recent Off-Broadway productions have explored a range of Chekhovian moods and tones -- from tragicomedy to broadly comic caricature. The Public Theater has unveiled its revival of "The Sea Gull," with Rosemary Harris as Madam Arkadina and Christopher Walken as Trigorin. The Harold Clurman Theater has opened its new season with "The Chekhov Sketchbook," a program of three playlets taken from the Russian master's short stories and starring Joseph Buloff in a role he originated. The Seagull

Comedy by Anton Chekhov. Adapted by JeanClaude van italie. Directed by Andrei Serban.

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"The Seagull" at the Public/Newman Theater abounds in director Andrei Serban's freshness, vitality, and painterly images. Happily it lacks the outlandishness that marred his beautiful but bizarre staging of "The Cherry Orchard" at Lincoln Center in 1977. With "The Seagull," in Jean-Claude van Italie's faithful adaptation, Mr. Serban seems content to play Chekhov straight.

The accent is on comedy, but the comedy is always human, even if the theatricalism appears at times self-conscious. There is a touching intensity to the exchanges of confidences, the revelations of inner thoughts, and the concessions of unrequited love. Yet the play trembles as often on the brink of laughter as of tears. Shifting relationships evolve spontaneously as the tale unfolds of the havoc caused by the visits of the actress Arkadina (Rosemary Harris) and her lover, the writer Trigorin (Christopher Walkin) to the country estate of Arkadina's brother, Sorin (George Hall).

The beautiful Miss Harris's arkadina is unself-consciously self-centered, insensitive rather than malicious, vain and capricious, temperamantally expansive and financially stingy. She has moments of maternalism and emotional depth. But her depths are shallow. In a fine example of the actor's intellignece at work, Mr. Walkin conveys the very ordinariness of Trigorin, a sort of fiction factory, the celebrity author. He is also the philanderer who, acting the outline of his own short story, finds an innocent girl and ruins her just to amuse himself.

As Arkadina's neglected son Konstantin, Brent Spiner lives out the intense desperation of a struggling writer whose ultimate success cannot save him from self-destruction. Cathryn Dowling's Nina, who rejects the young man for Trigorin, possesses the fresh loveliness essential to the symbolic role of the glamour-struck girl. But both of these younger players seem closer to the 20th centry than to Chekhov's 19th-century world.

The principal roles are played with a caring quality that distinguishes the performance as a whole. Besides Mr. Hall as the kindly and fragile Sorin, they include F. Murray Abraham as the philosophical Dr. Dorn, Pamela Payton-Wright as the embittered Masha, and Richard Russell Ramos as her pathetically boring husband. The estate manager and his wife are acted by Michael Egan and Joyce Van Pattern.

Michel H. Yearga's setting, with its polished wood flooring and upstage crossover bridge, more easily accomodates the outdoor scenes of the first two acts than the interiors of Acts 3 and 4. The scenery is open and spacious in a picturesque way. The revival has been handsomely costumed by Jane Greenwood. The lighting is by Jennifer Tipton. Elizabeth Swados composed the incidental music. Even if the production as a whole wants something in the intense and pervading poignancy one expects from "The Seagull," this handsome production adds one more to the Public Theater's long list of distinguished achievements. The Chekhov Sketchbook

Three Short Plays translated and adapted by Joseph Buloff and Luba Kadison, based on short stories by Anton Chekhov. Directed by Tony Giordano.

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When Joseph Buloff came to the United States in 1928, he brought with him "The Chekhov Sketchbook," three short plays which he and Luba Kadison (Mrs. Buloff) had adapted from Chekhov's stories and which the actor first performed in Russia. With Mr. Buloff Very Much on hand to celebrate the occasion, they have reemerged as the lively opening bill of the Harold Clurman Theater's new season.

The only sketch in which the Lithuanian- born star now appears is understandably the piece de resistance of the entertainment. Entitled "In a Music Shop," it concerns the anguished efforts of an elderly, parcel-laden customer to remember the title -- or even the tune -- of the piece he has been ordered to bring home to his domineering soprano of a wife.

The befuddled struggle to find that tune -- his quavery attempts to croon a measure, his terror at the thought of failure, his distracted descriptions of home life with the soprano and her miserable piano-playing daughter -- become part of a bravura this- was-my-life. It is at the same time hilarious and pathetic. As the patiently helpful shopkeeper, Frank Bara makes a bewildered but increasingly involved listener. And no wonder. Like the audience, he is spellbound by Mr. Buloff and his dapper but distraught dandy.

In "The Vagabond," the opening sketch, a prisoner (John Heard) trekking to Siberia temporarily distracts and enraptures his two bruO'Connel) with fantastic tales of a pampered childhood and extravagant dreams of the freedom he envisions in exile. "The Witch" tells what happens when a postman (Stephen D. Newman) finds brief refuge from a winter blizzard in the church-attached dwelling of a curmudgeonly deacon (Mr. Heard) and his affection-starved wife (Penelope Allen). These more serious playlets are acted with considerable force and imagination. Tony Giordano directed. The Glass Menagerie

"Memory Play" by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Tom Kamm. Starring Julie Haydon.

Julie Haydon, the exquisitely haunting Laura Wingfield of the original 1945 production of "The Glass Menagerie," has returned to the New York stage after a long absence to appear in a new production of the gentle Tennessee Williams masterpiece. At the Off- Broadway Lion Theater, Miss Haydon now plays Laura's pathetically indomitable mother, Amanda, the role created by the incomparable Laurette Taylor.

Besides its relevancy to the pre-World War II America about which Mr. Williams was writing, "The Glass Menagerie" impresses anew with its timeless qualities: the delicate lyricism, melting palthos, and wry humor that first won acclaim. However, due in large part to Miss Haydon's unsuitability to the central role, the production staged by Tom Kamm leaves much to be desired. While there is no mistaking the sincerity of her approach to the part of the oppressively maternal amanda, the star's mannerisms and vocal eccentricities are distracting and disconcerting.

For the rest, "The Glass Menagerie" is persuasively acted by Patricia Angelin as the painfully shy Laura, Anthony Heald as the restive Tom Wingfield, and William Anton as the kindly but unavailable Gentleman Caller.

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