There’s something about Anton Chekhov’s whiny sisters that invites comic sendups of “Three Sisters” like the one Halley Feiffer wrote on commission for the Williamstown Theater Festival. Transferred to MCC Theater’s new Off Broadway space and playing in the round in a black box with limited seating capacity, the crafty show feels intimate and familiar. And did we mention fun?
Who among us hasn’t listened to Olga, Masha, and Irina bitch and moan about their boring life in a Moscow suburb and thought: Oh, get on with it, girls! Pack a bag and leave already! This show speaks our minds for us.
Without deviating from the subject and context of Chekhov’s beloved domestic comedy, playwright Feiffer and director Trip Cullman have superimposed their own modern-day sensibility on a play that deals very specifically with the social mores of provincial Russia in 1900. The distinction is that this psychologically complex work is played almost exclusively for amusement. It isn’t until the very end of the show that we’re allowed a glimpse into the future of Russia’s privileged classes during a tumultuous time of revolution.
An incandescent Chris Perfetti (“The Low Road”) flounces around in gorgeous black-gowned drag (Paloma Young did the costuming) as Masha, the most willful of the three sisters wasting their lives away in a torpid suburb and dreaming of a return to the old days when they were all young and rich. That is, before their feckless brother, Andrey (Greg Hildreth, capturing the character’s misery as well as his selfishness), gambled away the family fortune.
Having established a pose that visually sums up his interpretation of the beautiful and brilliant Masha — hand on left hip, head at a defiant angle — Perfetti makes it an integral part of her persona. No wonder this vital creature feels stifled in this social wasteland, married to the doting but doltish Kulygin (Ryan Spahn, looking awash in misery) and pining for the adulation she knows she deserves.
Rebecca Henderson, who originated the role of Olga at Williamstown, is the very soul of stability as the oldest and most practical (or is it the most spiritually drained?) of the three sisters. And Tavi Gevinson (“This Is Our Youth”) is entrancing as Irina, the youngest sister — so young that, at age twenty at the beginning of the play, she has not yet lost her idealism.
What makes this production so engrossing is that it seems to exist on two separate levels of reality — the stultifying reality of bourgeois life for women in turn-of-the-last-century Russia and the not-entirely-liberated lives of women in the present day. Without relinquishing its wonderful sense of gaiety, the show seems haunted by the future lives of its vital but vulnerable characters, and at the very end of the show we’re allowed a glimpse of the emptiness in the days and nights to come.
Mark Wendland’s sets are nothing to speak of, but Ben Stanton’s lighting is kind to the characters, even when they are fully exposed in their most foolish moments, as they are in this production. Cullman (“Lobby Hero”) has always cast with imagination and works well with his hand-picked performers, and this production is no exception. For once, Olga doesn’t seem like a dried-up prune, but a flesh-and-blood woman who has bravely accepted the inevitability of the life ahead of her. Masha is Masha, but Perfetti allows her an air of dignity to sustain her overly dramatic antics. It’s especially surprising — and entirely welcome — to have an Irina who may be young and innocent, but is by no means vacuous. For all her disarming charms, Gevinson projects an intelligence that will make Irina’s future life all the more unbearable.
The ladies may be the main attraction, but the men in their lives are no less interesting. Spahn’s Kulygin is more sympathetic than pathetic. Hildreth’s Andrey makes the poor guy’s misery palpable. Boyer’s Baron Tutzenbach isn’t entirely spineless. And Alfredo Narcisco’s Vershinin is almost too beautiful to share the stage with ordinary mortals.
Feiffer’s text retains the most memorable of Chekhov’s dialogue. (One fools around with a line like “No one will remember us” at their everlasting peril.) But there’s a jaunty quality about even the dourest sentiments. (“That’s what life is, doing horrible things and complaining about them.”) Adaptations are always treacherous, but despite the liberties taken here, appropriate respect is shown for the language. And it’s gratifying to hear a Chekhovian line like “Nothing’s ever really too dark for us” delivered with both humor and conviction.