IN A 1926 ESSAY, critic D. S. Mirsky wrote about Chekhov that all of his characters speak in one language--Chekhov's own. It's a problem that Printer's Devil Theatre fails to address in their latest production, Chekhov's The Seagull. Confused, impassioned, rhetorical language booms off the precipice of existentialism, dominating the narrative of this play the way a teenage girl dominates her own party. It is true that Chekhov is a genius in his single-mindedness; Printer's Devil, however, is pedestrian in theirs.

Heidi Schreck and Kip Fagan, according to the program notes, have translated and adapted Chekhov's text, although their aesthetic purpose is not clear. The notoriously difficult play is, apart from its setting, presented relatively unmodified (one modification is that Konstantin spits out the word "fuck" a few times). Characters announce themselves and their intentions, set pieces are sparse but realistic, and the feeling of taking on something grandiloquent suffuses the actors' very footsteps. Chekhov's ideological speeches, bound by the constructs of his time, remain.

Few writers surpass Chekhov in conveying the loneliness of humanity, the absolute hopelessness of human connection. To this end the one innovation Printer's Devil does make--the setting of the play--works nicely: The play is presented at the prow end of the ferry Kalakala. Much of The Seagull's dialogue refers to a lake in the countryside, where the great writer Trigorin fishes and Konstantin shoots his sad seagull. There is a tension set up between the inherent despair of the countryside and the hope symbolized by the city. Members of Printer's Devil sidle up to the ferry's windows to utter pensive speeches, respond to random sounds from the water, and run along the ship's promenade, which is perched above the stage and audience. The distressed interior of the Kalakala (complete with spiders, which distracted my date to no end) lends the production a lovely humility and a strange antiquity, reverberating with Chekhov's language and ideology to produce an effect that the sensitive will appreciate. Here you are, the audience, facing the panoramic city in a vessel that once represented progress and now rusts as a useless monument, watching Chekhov.

But back to the play itself. Chekhov wrote that his "openings always promise a great deal, as if I had started a novel; the middle is crumpled up and timid; and the ending is like fireworks, as though in a short story." Although meant to describe the influence of his newspaper-writing on his greater art, the description paces Printer's Devil's production exactly. The play opens with great promise: Actors run noisily onto the stage, Konstantin (Deron Bos) huffing and ranting, tongue literally in cheek, Nina (Heidi Schreck) like a shorn Marilyn Monroe. Konstantin's production of the play he has written, viewed by his mother (Cathy Sutherland as Arkadina) and others, is a failure because Arkadina interrupts to make fun of it. A successful actress in the traditional style, she cannot understand why Konstantin has chosen to write a play about ambiguities. Konstantin, who is clearly obsessed with his mother (their near make-out scene is one of this production's most successful), runs off, again noisily.

But the characters are all trapped at Arkadina's remote country home, and so the drama unfolds in a slow and awkward claustrophobia. The characters couple and uncouple, sharing their innermost conflicts, and here the play crumples, its pacing flat and operatic. It would perhaps have been better if Schreck and Fagan had chosen to streamline the speeches or abut scenes even more dramatically; as it is, it's timid.

The end: fireworks. Konstantin's love, Nina, has run off to the city to be Trigorin's mistress; he himself has become a published author but still yearns after her. When, in the end, Konstantin succeeds in the fate he has been threatening all along, the bang is like that one firework that goes off after you think the show is over: anticlimactic. How nice it would have been if Printer's Devil had incorporated its use of setting to greater effect, and had Konstantin actually jump ship. As it is, Printer's Devil's The Seagull sails a safe and staid course, crewed by the company's highly satisfactory actors--its destination a fine evening of deck-top theater, with no real view of the stars.