Even an inspired Maria Bello proves insufficiently daring to save Richard Alfieri's Chekhov-based chamber piece "Sisters" from pretentious psychodrama. With every emotion backstoried to death and characters trading set-piece tirades, one almost expects to see an applause meter to determine the winner.

This review was updated on May 11, 2005

Even a magnificently inspired Maria Bello proves insufficiently daring to save Richard Alfieri and Arthur Allan Seidelman’s Chekhov-based chamber piece “Sisters” from pretentious psychodrama. With every emotion backstoried to death and characters trading set-piece tirades, one almost expects to see an applause meter to determine the winner. Now set in academia to explain why everyone speaks like an unproduced playwright, Chekhov’s original profound lament for a dying class becomes the whine of a dysfunctional inner child. Nevertheless, name thesps could land prestige project an arthouse tryout.

Pic sticks close to stage version — also directed by Seidelman and written by Alfieri — and profits from it’s ivory-tower claustrophobia. The characters’ reliance on highfalutin verbiage makes some small sense, although to ascribe literariness to the English professors and repressed aggression to political scientists seems trite. In modernizing the classic text, Alfieri overexplains each character’s psyche as a manifestation of childhood trauma or repressed sexuality, and envisions dialogue only as a form of acting out or of denial.

Aside from Bello (as Marsha), whose angst takes the form of brilliant attacks against the rest of the cast, thesping is far from ensemble. Mary Stuart Masterson, as older, repressed sister Olga, is given material with little range or vulnerability. Erika Christensen as baby sis Irene has more luck with her role as an intelligent ingenue struggling with baby fat and overprotection. Tony Goldwyn as outsider/catalyst Vincent manages to suggest a world outside the dysfunctional university family to which he is fatally drawn.

Some actors, chosen to play either to type or defiantly against it, seem to have wandered in from different disciplines entirely. Rip Torn as the acerbic head of the department and friend of the family, reprises the hearty irony of his “Larry Sanders” role, while Chris O’Donnell’s anemic nice-guy David threatens to fade into the woodwork. Elizabeth Bank’s Nancy, a somewhat defanged incarnation of Chekhov’s villainous sister-in-law, puts an old-fashioned, Brooklyn-accented spin on plebian spite, while “Will and Grace” regular Eric McCormack monotonously spews forth his pain in a stream of sardonic one-liners.

Chuy Chavez’s camerawork, designed to underscore the dialogue’s dominant thrusts, rarely bothers with visual subtext. Stephen Altman’s production design and Emmy Taylor’s costumes help deliver the play’s chronological vagueness.

The Sisters

Production

A Carolyn S. Chambers presentation of a CSC Sisters/Persistent Entertainment production. Produced by Matthew Rhodes, Judd Payne. Executive producer, Chambers. Directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman. Screenplay by Richard Alfieri from his play inspired by Anton Chekhov's "The Three Sisters."

Crew

Camera (color), Chuy Chavez; editor, Drake Silliman; music, Thomas Morse; production designer, Stephen Altman; costume designer, Emmy Taylor; supervising sound editor (Dolby Digital), Michael J. McDonald; casting, Bruce H. Newberg. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (competing), April 30, 2005. Running time: 113 MIN.

With

Maria Bello, Mary Stuart Masterson, Erika Christensen, Tony Goldwyn, Elizabeth Banks, Chris O'Donnell, Eric McCormack, Rip Torn, Alessandro Nivola, Steven Culp.

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