nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
January 30, 2011
Those poor Prozorov sisters. All the heroines of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters want is to make it to Moscow. Yet Moscow has never seemed as far away as it does in Austin Pendleton’s production for Classic Stage Company.
While Pendleton doesn’t impose any new ideas onto the play, he does create a Three Sisters that is trapped in the past while clinging to the present. The translation used, by Paul Schmidt, is decidedly modern, sacrificing character and florid writing for vernacular like “What the hell?” and “Weird.” The actors, all of whom seem to truly be listening to one another and responding from the heart, wear sumptuous period costumes, designed by Marco Piemontese, while moving and delivering the dialogue as though they’re living in the present day.
The staging, with cinematic fluidity and two intermissions (between the first and second acts, as well as between acts three and four), is fascinating, though purists will certainly disagree with the marriage of period costume and modern lingo. Pendleton’s blocking is particularly busy, with action taking place in every corner of Walt Spangler’s wooden plank set. The centerpiece is a large, versatile table that takes a full 10-minute intermission to clear and rotate in preparation for the second act. In the third act, it serves as a bedroom. By act four, it’s been hoisted up, leaning vertically against the back wall.
In the central roles of Olga, Masha, and Irina, Jessica Hecht, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Juliet Rylance are so fully committed to their scene work that even as a nightstand was unintentionally flung to the ground during a bedside argument, they didn’t take their eyes off one another. Hecht is particularly effective in conveying Olga’s inner pain at her spinsterhood, while Gyllenhaal succeeds in finding Masha’s giddiness as she enjoys a love affair with the older soldier Vershinin, sweetly and soulfully played by her off-stage husband, Peter Sarsgaard. Rylance, meanwhile, has some lovely moments as Irina, and is the only one of the three sisters to actually look the age of the character.
Josh Hamilton is quietly nuanced as their brother Andrey, while Marin Ireland is the complete opposite—over-the-top, abrasive, and, appropriately, thoroughly detestable as his domineering wife Natasha. However, her performance is so jarringly 2011 that it throws off the balance whenever she steps on stage. Solid supporting turns are provided by Louis Zorich as the doctor Chebutykin, Roberta Maxwell as the elderly maid Anfisa, Paul Lazar as Masha’s older husband Kulygin, and Anson Mount, who is a particularly volatile Solyony. Only Ebon Moss-Bachrach fails to make an impression, in the juicy role of Baron Tuzenbach.
There is a deeply felt sense of resignation that pervades the playing space from the opening moments. Whether it’s Olga’s realization that she’s destined to die unmarried or Andrey’s downcast stares as he pushes around an extraordinarily beautiful pram, these people know their fates. Moscow is but a memory.