In director Scott Elliott’s superficial staging of “Three Sisters,” everything but the running time gets reduced. Chekhov’s elegy of longing is whittled to whining, desperation becomes petulance and passion comes off as bloodless flirtation. An all-star production in which all the stars seem to have been allowed to devise acting styles and characterizations without consulting one another (or the all-star director), the much-anticipated “Three Sisters” is one of the biggest disappointments of the Broadway season to date.
Granted, Elliott — whose most recent Broadway outing, “Present Laughter,” was either crass or wonderfully energetic, depending upon the observer (I voted crass) — has the great misfortune of directing the second production of this classic to play New York in recent months. The Sovremennik Theater’s staging that visited the Lunt-Fontanne Theater last November, with its clap-trap set and slapdash production values, mined emotions in “Three Sisters” that Elliott and most of his cast approach tepidly and infrequently.
Played on a set in which the walls and furniture of the Prozorov household are as drab and washed-out as the characters’ lives (a design that sacrifices historical accuracy — and theatrical panache — for symbolism), Elliott’s “Three Sisters” does boast a facile touch (if facile Chekhov can be a boast) that lends the play an accessibility sometimes lacking in more ponderous versions. And the story of three upper-class sisters longing for love, meaning and Moscow at least has two performances — Amy Irving as eldest sister Olga and Lili Taylor as the youngest, Irina — that provide a depth elsewhere lacking.
But reductionism notwithstanding, Chekhov’s sisters remain a trio, and any imbalance all but sinks the play. Jeanne Tripplehorn, an actress best known for her film work but one who’s turned in fine performances Off Broadway, takes a wildly misguided approach to Masha. As the middle sister stuck in an unsatisfying marriage and secretly in love with the soldier Vershinin, Tripplehorn overplays the character’s anger nearly to the exclusion of every other emotion. With her thoroughly modern acting style and rather condescending air, Tripplehorn seems more New York intellectual than Russian aristocrat, as if she’d wandered in from one of Woody Allen’s serious movies.
At least she’d be wandering in from something serious. Paul Giamatti, as the sisters’ pensive, dispirited brother Andrei, plays urban neurosis like a Richard Lewis stand-up routine, then slides into shaky-voiced melodrama when the going gets tough. David Marshall Grant portrays Kulygin, Masha’s schoolteacher husband, as a nutty professor buffoon, at least providing what might be the only reason Masha would fall for David Strathairn’s nervous, sensitive-guy colonel. Nearly to a man (and certainly to Eric Stoltz’s lovestruck Baron), the males in this production come off so nerdy that the sisters have more reason than ever to flee for Moscow.
The oddest thing of all about these performances is that they are committed by good actors. In some cases, miscasting is the culprit: Billy Crudup, terrific in “Arcadia” and the only thing that salvaged last season’s “Bus Stop,” lacks the bearing for a credible Solyony, the sadistic soldier obsessed with Irina. Jerry Stiller, as the alcoholic doctor resigned to loss and old age, settles quite convincingly into the role but only after audiences stop reacting to his every line as if it were a joke on “Seinfeld.”
But mostly, the varied acting approaches seem the result of the director’s ill-defined vision for the play. Surely Elliott had more in mind than simply providing a group of hot, talented, Hollywood-credentialed actors a shot at Chekhov, but if there’s an artistic viewpoint that drives this production it makes no appearance on the Roundabout stage. These sisters could use more than a little fatherly guidance