In truth, Chekhov's plays are among the most difficult in dramatic literature to perform, and successful productions are rare. (A notable exception was last season's mounting of "Three Sisters" play by A Noise Within company, which stuck resolutely not only to the text but to the demanding tone Chekhov set.)

In truth, Chekhov’s plays are among the most difficult in dramatic literature to perform, and successful productions are rare. (A notable exception was last season’s mounting of “Three Sisters” play by A Noise Within company, which stuck resolutely not only to the text but to the demanding tone Chekhov set.)

In contrast, first-time playwright Alfieri never finds a consistent tone in his script, which veers from soap opera to farce and back again.

Set mostly in the grandiose faculty lounge of Manhattan College, the play explores the tribulations of the Prior sisters — Marcia (Meg Foster), Olga (Season Hubley) and Irene (Charlotte Ross).

There also are other, too-familiar Chekhovian characters — played by Paul Regina, Pat Corley, Matthew Letscher, Tony Musante, Pamela Sam and Alan Feinstein — each with a relationship with the three sisters that’s too complicated to explain.

But that is exactly what playwright Alfieri does. He explains everything about these characters — past, present and future — without really exploring their emotions beyond the obligatory, and generally quite false, dramatic outpourings.

This is precisely the opposite of what Chekhov did, which was to explore the inner lives of his characters through emotional subtext. When you strip Chekhov of the subtext, you end up with soap opera, which is a most accurate description of this play.

The production values also present real problems. While set designer Gary Wissman can be credited for his grandly paneled faculty lounge, it simply highlights the play’s pomposity.

This is coupled with a too-subtle lighting design by Kevin Mahan, which leaves performers practically groping in the dark and the aud squinting to catch facial expressions.

There is the kernel of a play here, which is what some of the more intelligent performers, such as Foster and Craig Wasson, seem to be struggling to find.

With a little comedic direction and a substantial rewrite, the play could become a kind of dark family farce, with the tragicomic shades suitable to our times.

Provided that all mention of an updated Chekhov is banished from press and publicity materials, such a play might have a shot.

However, given what the creative team of Alfieri and Seidelman has tossed up onstage so far, much improvement seems unlikely.

The Sisters

(Pasadena Playhouse; 680 seats; $ 33.50 top)

Production

Pasadena Playhouse presents a drama in two acts by Richard Alfieri. Directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman; set design, Gary Wissman; lighting design, Kevin Mahan; costume design, Dawna Oak; sound design, Frederick W. Boot. Opened, reviewed July 16, 1995; runs through Aug. 20. Running time: 1 hour, 40 min. Gary Sokol ... Paul Regina Dr. Chebrin ... Pat Corley David Turzin ... Matthew Letscher Marcia Prior Glass ... Meg Foster Olga Prior ... Season Hubley Vincent Antonelli ... Tony Musante Andrew Prior ... Craig Wasson Nancy Pecket ... Pamela Sam Irene Prior ... Charlotte Ross Harry Glass ... Alan Feinstein Nurse ... Jamie Forehand Richard Alfieri's modern update of Chekhov's "Three Sisters" is a dismal misadventure, featuring amateurish writing, stiff direction by Arthur Allan Seidelman and over-the-top acting by a talented cast struggling to make sense of this aimless piece. It certainly requires chutzpah to update Chekhov's dark and complex play, but to boldly announce a modern adaptation borders on folly.

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more