Aplomb de Famille: Theater J stages Chekhov domesticity at its most lively.

As much as the name Anton Chekhov conjures images of bored, po-faced Russians dithering over samovars and parting the air with long, wet sighs, the guy knew how to do funny, and 2009 is giving D.C. audiences a couple chances to see it. In January, the Washington Shakespeare Company mounted a downright slapstick Cherry Orchard with intriguing, if mixed, results. Now Chekhov’s Seagull—the consumptive Cossack’s first and most meticulous examination of despair and distraction among the Russian gentry—is getting fed through the comedy filter at Theater J. What emerges under the confident direction of John Vreeke (who helmed Forum’s much-loved Last Days of Judas Iscariot last year) is crisp, funny, and ably performed. It’s also inflected with an extra shtikl of comic energy by artistic director Ari Roth’s adaptation. Inspired by Louis Malle’s film Vanya on 42nd Street, Roth’s script has fun blurring the lines between actor and role, production and play, contemporary culture and 1898 Russia. The play’s famous opening exchange—in which the lovesick Masha (Tessa Klein) explains that she wears black because “I am in mourning for my life”—remains intact, but the performers sidle up to it gradually, and Masha’s black-lace-and-leather wardrobe is more Dead Can Dance than dacha. (Roth’s attempt to overlay the play with Jewish themes is less successful, because such affinities can’t simply be asserted if they’re to carry real weight. To work as Roth intends, they’d need to be woven even more thoroughly into the warp and woof of the text than they have been here.) The parallels that do work, and work well, are visual and emotional: Note how similarly both Naomi Jacobsen’s Arkadina and Alexander Strain’s Treplev evince their soaring neediness—Vreeke has mother and son literally cling to their respective paramours, choking them like creeper vines. Jacobsen and Strain fill out only two slots in what’s pretty much a Justice League roll call of D.C. performers: Jerry Whiddon’s rumpled Trigorin; J. Fred Shiffman’s effortlessly empathetic Doctor Dorn; a compassionate Nanna Ingvarsson; a commanding Brian Hemmingsen. Nina (Veronica del Cerro), the provincial girl who gets caught up and nearly destroyed by the play’s events, never emerges clearly here: Del Cerro’s fine in the early going, when Nina is filled with hope and desperate dreams. But when the character appears at the end of the play, she has been overmatchedus t by life—she is fragile, shattered, an exposed nerve. Del Cerro instead comes across as mildly diffuse and distracted; as a result, the play’s famous climax, which should feel inevitable, can’t arrive with the requisite force. Even so, this Seagull is lively, solidly built and frequently funny—and productions of Chekhov that achieve that particular trifecta are rare indeed.