August 24, 2019

Review: Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters,’ Now with Upspeak and Emojis

Review: Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters,’ Now with Upspeak and Emojis


But the absurdity and sarcasm quickly pall; Ms. Feiffer evidently wants the audience to experience the household’s emotional depletion firsthand. (She says she sextupled the title for maximum annoyance.) Seated on two sides of a narrow platform cluttered with detritus from various decades between 1900 and now, theatergoers can’t help but feel they are trapped along with the Prozorovs in an eternal (or at least a 95-minute) headache.

Anachronism and anomie are the keynotes of Mr. Cullman’s inventive production. That platform set, by Mark Wendland, is lit by Ben Stanton with soft Chinese lanterns and harsh fluorescents; the costumes, by Paloma Young, are winkingly contemporary, with lacy yoga pants for the arriviste Natasha (Sas Goldberg) and Playbill pajamas for Masha’s apparently closeted husband, Kulygin (Ryan Spahn). The soundscape samples Whitney Houston, Russian rap and “Into the Woods.”

This aesthetic discipline supports Ms. Feiffer’s tone at every turn. Mr. Cullman makes even the scene changes comply, so that the fire occurring during what was once the break between Act 2 and Act 3 is now a staged “fire,” all garish red lights and choreographed chaos.

With most of the play’s events in quotation marks, you’d think there would be nothing left for the characters to do but mouth their lines. Yet Ms. Feiffer, here as in “The Pain of My Belligerence” and “I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard,” manages to leave room for piquant acting within her overwrought concepts.

In “Moscow,” which is gorgeously and nontraditionally cast, real feeling does push through the sarcasm from time to time. Masha’s desperate passion for the soldier Vershinin (Alfredo Narciso) is made in no way ridiculous by the fact that Mr. Perfetti is plainly a man in a dress. The paternal love that the doctor, Chebutykin, feels for Irina is no less touching now that the text spells out what used to be subtext; Ray Anthony Thomas nails it beautifully anyway.

I was especially taken by the way Ms. Goldberg as Natasha and Matthew Jeffers as the “freak” soldier Solyony do justice to their characters’ repellency while also suggesting its causes. Mr. Jeffers especially shows us, in a kind of preview of incel culture, that the moral idleness and emotional obtuseness of the highborn Prozorovs reverberates disastrously beyond their privileged household.

But all of this real feeling is Chekhov’s; the cast might just as creditably have performed the original “Three Sisters.” Despite her skill and wit, I’m not sure what Ms. Feiffer has added to it, even as it’s clear what she has subtracted. Masha, the idlest sister, encapsulates the nihilism of the adaptation’s ethos when she says, “That’s what life is, I think? Just doing horrible things? And complaining about them?”

As a dramatist, Chekhov wasn’t nihilistic. For him, the struggle against despair was endlessly engaging even though despair itself was not. Despite a tacked-on semi-happy ending, “Moscow” flips those polarities, reveling in hatefulness and hopelessness. That may be timely but, as Chekhov never said, it’s also a bit too obvi.

Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow

Tickets Through Aug. 3 at the Susan and Ronald Frankel Theater at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, Manhattan; 646-506-9393, mcctheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.



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