The metatheatrical hilarity commences the minute the lights come up on San Francisco Playhouse’s regional premiere of Aaron Posner’s “Stupid Fucking Bird,” a modern adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s 1896 play “The Seagull.”
Most of Chekhov’s lovelorn characters are present and accounted for, their names changed slightly (gloomy Masha is now Mash, obsessive aspiring playwright Constantin is Con and so on), and a few characters are conflated.
There are some plot changes, too, but for the most part Posner follows Chekhov’s script, and brings it home in ways that effectively embody both the expressive, vodka-fueled emoting of Chekhov’s Russians as well as our society’s self-absorbed predilection for over-sharing.
Posner, whose touch is delicate, rueful and compassionate, explores the human comedy in all its melancholia, and it’s beautifully captured by director Susi Damilano and her excellent cast.
Initially family and friends gather to watch a “site-specific performance” created by Con (played with a fierce and limber intensity by Adam Magill), the son of slightly aging actress Emma (a wonderfully sardonic and focused Carrie Paff).
Con sees his play – an earnest, rhymed monologue starring a neighbor, aspiring actress Nina (Martha Brigham), with whom Con is madly in love – as a revolutionary antidote to tired old theatrical tropes, an opportunity for Posner to poke insider fun at contemporary theater.
When Emma — who calls her son’s virgin attempt at playwriting “pretentious drivel” – appears with her lover, Trig (Johnny Moreno), youthful Nina is smitten with the older, successful writer, breaking hearts in her doomed pursuit of him.
Meanwhile, the humble Dev (beautifully underplayed by Joseph Estlack) is wooing the existentially depressed and prickly Mash (sweet-voiced El Beh), who’s in love with Con and stomps around in black boots strumming the ukulele and singing mournful songs with lyrics like “You live and then you die.”
The doctor, Sorn, drifts about playing the clarinet, ignored by the others and bemused by the passionate feelings swirling all around him; Charles Shaw Robinson’s poignant performance is a thing of beauty.
In one potent scene, Emma begs Trig not to leave her; his only response, calmly repeated: “Let me go.”
Blithely breaking the fourth wall, the characters drop in and out of the play to interact with the audience.
As funny as this “Bird” is, it is also, like its source material, deeply moving. If Chekhov could have seen this smart San Francisco Playhouse production, he’d surely have loved it.
Stupid Fucking Bird
Where: San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., S.F.
When: Tuesdays-Sundays; closes May 2
Tickets: $20 to $120
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org