Through June 4
Manbites Dog Theater, Durham

Early in The New Colossus, a visit between two childhood friends suddenly takes a bitter turn. “You’ve always thought you were better than the rest of us,” snipes Paulina (Susannah Hough), a small-town hausfrau with a Betty Crocker complex. She’s angry with Irina (J Evarts), a former local actor-turned-soap opera star who now returns home only under duress. The imperious Irina ridicules the accusation with an indulgent, mocking laugh, before asking, “How else could I have survived?”

Thus playwright Tamara Kissane broaches the subject of her rich contemporary adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull at Manbites Dog Theater. Surely we all like to think of ourselves as special. But then there are those like Irina and her son, a troubled video artist named Konrad, who believe themselves to be so special that the rules of civility, social intercourse, and even basic humanity no longer apply.

Tom Wolfe explored this kind of exceptionalism among Wall Street’s self-styled “masters of the universe” in The Bonfire of the Vanities, and we’re seeing it again in present-day American politics. The unfounded, convenient belief that one’s own region, race, religious faith, or political system is intrinsically superior to all others has made an impact on every recent national election. By contrast, this Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern premiere indicates the degree to which its interpersonal analogue has crept into the American psyche.

In a year when political forces have endangered the common good in order to deny equal status to a certain class, The New Colossus is the second regional show in which characters just as doggedly deny equality to family members and lovers, based on their perceived differences. As journalistic gravitas formed a dividing line between necessary and expendable humans in January’s memorable Time Stands Still, interpersonal equality is granted only for artistic achievement, with equally problematic results, in The New Colossus.

Nebbishy teacher Meddie (Lazarus Simmons) has Konrad (a mercurial Alex Jackson) pegged when he calls his earnest but muddy multimedia performance “an excuse for you … to rub our faces in your artistic juices.” But by then, Irina has already rubbed Konrad’s face in something fouler. After heckling and derailing his performance, she dismisses it as “post-apocalyptic garbage.” Meanwhile, thriller novelist Trig (a deft Jaybird O’Berski) demurs on economic grounds: “It doesn’t matter anyway. It’s all about marketing. You don’t need to make good art … it’s about who’s buying what you’re selling.”

Faced with such lacerating advice, Konrad has as little chance of artistically blossoming as he has of not becoming a raging narcissist. We see this in his neglect of the dying uncle he’s being paid to care for. Though Konrad defiantly tells his mother his art will change the world, he shows no interest when Meddie begs him to help document the hellish public school where he works. Instead, Konrad makes ugly, infantile Internet attacks on his supposed muse, Nina, (Alice Rose Turner), after they’ve broken up.

Konrad’s obsessive video documentation of virtually everything he sees suggests something potentially even darker: the possibility that nothing in his life, including him, is sufficiently real unless he can capture it on screen. His alarming emotional meltdowns when his intimates won’t go on cameraplus a desperate admission that he’s “disappearing”suggest a borderline personality disorder for the YouTube age, in which the only remaining personal boundaries are the edges of a video frame.

Director Dana Marks elicits strong moments from this talented ensemble, and Nicola Bullock’s disquieting choreography for Irina stuns us at mid-show. Though I didn’t believe that musician Masha (Mara Thomas) was carrying the torch for Konrad, her quietly devastating late-night scene with Nina captured the justified discomfort of two young women looking into an uncertain future.

In the fates of these and other characters, we learn the consequences when people cannot achieve equality or stability. In a triumphant adaptation, Kissane not only recalibrates Chekhov for our present technology and language, but also places him squarely within our culture and politics to deliver a sobering, timely lesson.

This article appeared in print with the headline “No Exceptions.”