Any play that takes as its title and central image the dirtiest, most annoying species of bird in existence ought to be approached with caution. Sure, it may be delightful, while picnicking on the beach or standing on the deck of a ferry boat, to toss out a spare bread crumb to a near-flying seagull and watch it snatch up the morsel in a single, graceful swoop. But the moment you do, you’re in for a swarm of howling, hungry, unbelievably audacious fowl — and they won’t stop until long after you’ve had enough.

The first two acts of “The Seagull” represent that initial, thrilling mix of excitement and charity. Originally written by Anton Chekhov, but adapted and injected with farce by Tom Stoppard, the play presents an ensemble of deliciously self-obsessed characters (well-played by capable actors), each of whom faces the challenges that accompany creative ambition.

[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”980″ ]

Konstantin (drolly played by Chad Callaghan ’07) is a misunderstood young writer whose prima donna mother Irina (a hysterical Jocelyn Ranne ’07) is too busy fighting Father Time to give him the attention he craves. Konstantin’s ailing uncle Sorin (played by Gabriel Sloyer ’09, who deserves credit for creating an elderly character sans help from the makeup department) doesn’t help things much, though he tries, nor does neighboring debutante Nina (played by Lauren Coppola ’07), who naively tortures Konstantin with her gracious beauty and wide-eyed charm. But if anyone’s a thorn in Konstantin’s side, it’s his mother’s “famous writer” boyfriend, Trigorin (played by Paul Spera ’08), whose power to destroy those around him … destroys those around him.

When these and other characters congregate on a moonlit night for the occasion of Konstantin’s latest avant-garde playwriting effort, stars collide to make plenty of noise and all-around good theater. Meta-commentary on modern drama and creative efforts in general safely assures the audience that “The Seagull” is meant to be taken lightly — it continually laughs at itself. It’s no surprise then, that when things suddenly turn less funny, audience has trouble, well, caring, much in the way that the characters take little issue with the enormous dead bird that lies on stage throughout act two.

Visually, “The Seagull” retains its awkward grace throughout. A somewhat minimalist set design by Meg Fitzpatrick ’10 and props by Sarah Moses ’10 ignore some verisimilitudes while choosing to acknowledge others, tending to nab just the right effect — whether it’s via a plush leather sofa or a tear-away metallic flower. Lighting Designer Valerie Cervantes ’08, too, seems to know just what to do with backlighting and scrims, while costume maven Adele Li ’09 finds outfits — particularly Irina’s crimson, fur and pink stocking ensemble — that perfectly suit the farcical antics of the actors. The live music pouring forth from violinist Austin Kilaru ’07 and pianist Mary Leytes ’09 is also a nice touch, especially between acts three and four when it resuscitates the near-living.

Director Eyad Houssami ’07 succeeds by using a mature invisible touch, only occasionally revealing the ropes with which he pulls the production together. Even the open-curtain scene-changes with the actors stomping offstage and flinging props around “in character” seems born of necessity, rather than arbitrary whimsy. And if he’s responsible at all for having pointed his actors toward their consistent, sometimes moving (sometimes not, in the case of those billed as “Mannequins” and “Shoes”) performances, it doesn’t show in the final product. Each actor takes the stage with a fluidity and passion that betrays nothing but talent.

But for a play that, at first, seems to have everything, “The Seagull” reveals in the later acts that it doesn’t quite know what to do with it. The play rolls quickly downhill after the second act, not because of any lack of radiance or vision but because, much like the character of Irina, it really just gets old. In act four, the pouty are still pouty, the depressed still depressed, the unnoticeable still, to their frustration, unnoticed. If that’s the point of this production – that after everything seagulls are never going to be anything more than seagulls — then the high-flying comedy of the first acts should have been maintained, rather than shot down in favor of flat drama.