Friday, February 4, 2011

Classic Chekhov


Gyllenhaal, Rylance and Hecht in Three Sisters (photo by Joan Marcus)

Three Sisters
Written by Anton Chekhov

Translated by Paul Schmidt
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Josh Hamilton, Jessica Hecht, Marin Ireland, Juliet Rylance, Peter Sarsgaard, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Glenn Fitzgerald, Roberta Maxwell, Louis Zorich, George Morfogen, Paul Lazar

Performances through March 6, 2011
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street

Although Chekhov called his plays comedies, they’re best labeled tragicomedies, as anyone who sees Three Sisters—his masterly dramatization of the meaningless existence of the title siblings, their uncle, their brother and his wife, their servants and soldiers from a nearby garrison—can attest.

Austin Pendleton’s satisfying Classic Stage Company staging gets across the humor and the tragedy, and there are copious amounts of both. When Chekhov is done well (rarely in New York, unfortunately), we are as drained as his characters after three hours of blood, sweat and tears, and this modest but moving Three Sisters succeeds at that, which Pendleton’s last Chekhov foray at CSC, Uncle Vanya in 2008, conspicuously did not.

Highlighting this sensitive production is Pendleton’s ability to bring together a cohesive ensemble. Although the cast is mainly American, that works to its advantage as the Russianness of the characters is sacrificed for an engrossing universality. The relationships of these resigned characters come to life naturally and organically, unlike the celebrated recent Broadway mounting of The Seagull that remained distant and disjointed despite excellent performances by Kristen Scott-Thomas and Carey Mulligan.

As the philosophizing soldier Vershinin, Peter Sarsgaard (also in that Seagull and Pendleton-directed Vanya) shows hat he has finally learned the unique rhythms of Chekhov. His scenes with real-life wife Maggie Gyllenhaal (also in that ill-fated Vanya) as eternally disappointed middle sister Masha are urgent and funny, with a distinct trace of melancholy that runs through any good Chekhov staging.

With one glaring exception, Pendleton’s cast is up to Chekhov’s demands, individually and together. Jessica Hecht is a sadly quiescent Olga, the eldest sister, and Juliet Rylance a cheerfully boisterous Irina, the youngest (Rylance’s slight British accent is occasionally off-putting.) The always reliable Josh Hamilton invests the women’s brother, itinerant gambler Andrey, with an emotional complexity beyond what he usually receives, while veteran Louis Zorich makes poignant the elderly family friend Chebutykin, an army doctor numbed by life’s tragedies.

Similarly, Paul Lazar finds hidden depths in Kulygin, Masha’s kind-hearted but comically pathetic middle-aged husband, and Ebon Moss-Bachrach plays Baron Tuzenbach, who gets Irina to agree to marry him despite her lack of love, with a touching gentleness. The estate’s elderly servants are given powerfully expressive moments thanks to Roberta Maxwell (as Anfisa) and George Morfogen (as Ferapont). Only Marin Ireland, as Andrey’s wife Natasha, broadly overplays her insecurity and hostility; too bad Pendleton didn’t rein her in.

That misstep aside, Pendleton—with the help of Paul Schmidt’s colloquial but eminently actable translation—has found the rich ore of humanity and truth in Chekhov’s classic.

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