nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 10, 2006
We've all done it: sitting in a bar, we start to overhear snippets of somebody else's conversation, and soon we're engrossed in a few moments of spontaneous theatre supplied by some total strangers who are pouring their hearts out while we eavesdrop on them.
Creating the same kind of situation on purpose is tricky, but that's exactly what director Daniel Talbott and his colleagues at Rising Phoenix Repertory pull off—beautifully—with their new site-specific play Three Sisters. In the back-room bar of Jimmy's No. 43, a cozy East Village eating/drinking establishment, audiences get to witness a singular birthday celebration in Daniel Reitz's sly take on Chekhov's classic. It's 40 minutes of guilty pleasure—without the guilt.
The women at the corner table are indeed named Olga, Masha, and Irina, but they are very much creatures of contemporary New York City. Olga's a teacher (of Italian, to overprivileged rich kids, she complains); Masha is the dissatisfied wife of a boring husband (but she loves their DUMBO apartment, so she won't break up the marriage); and Irina is a hard-working actress with a tiresome day job and a stalled artistic career—her latest role was on a commercial for a Herpes medicine.
Being familiar with the Chekhov original informs the experience as we overhear the women's conversation. They're annoyed with their brother, who has apparently married a golddigging tramp who kicked them out of their ancestral home, a luxurious Manhattan apartment. They recall how their father passed away just one year ago today. And Masha reveals that she's fallen in love with an unavailable man she met at yoga class. We never get to see any of these offstage characters, but knowing the first Three Sisters helps us conjure the latter-day Andrey, Natasha, and Vershinin in our mind's eye as they're mentioned, making the experience of this piece all the more fun.
Reitz has a great ear for dialogue, supplying a 21st century American idiom to match Chekhov's own rambling dialogue; it's a gift, making perfectly ordinary conversation soar with the emotional heft of stage poetry. He also supplies a neat surprise twist for his sisters, in the person of Nico, a fellow sitting at a table across the room from the women who, eavesdropping like the rest of us, becomes an enticing foil for these characters. Maybe he's the ineffable thing they think they're waiting for?
Talbott's relaxed, informal production fits oh so comfortably in this pub-like environment (audience members can bring drinks in with them from Jimmy's main bar to add to the ambience of the event). The decor and simple lighting are entirely effective, and the uncredited trendy costumes help us identify each of the characters even before she speaks. The sisters are played by Addie Johnson (Olga), Samantha Soule (Masha), and Julie Kline (Irina), who create compelling, distinct women almost instantly; the chemistry between Soule and Kline is especially impressive, really convincing us that they're actually siblings. Denis Butkus is terrific as Nico.
Three Sisters is an early evening's entertainment (performances are at 6pm): it's ideal for the first stop after work and short enough to leave you plenty of time for your other plans (drinks, dinner, etc.). If Reitz doesn't plumb as deeply into the hearts and souls of his sisters as Chekhov did (his play is about a quarter of the length of the original, after all), he nonetheless gives us a neat mix of gossip and substance to carry with us after we've left the company of these singular ladies.