Two Out of Three Ain't Bad 

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Three Sisters
Written by Anton Chekhov
Directed by Austin Pendleton

Chekhov saw his plays as comedies and often labeled them as such, but Three Sisters moved his Moscow Art Theatre actors to tears, so he called it "a drama in four acts." There are laughs in this play, if you look for them; the long sequence after the fire in the third act has elements of farce, but it would take a dark comic genius of a director to stage it that way. In this production of Three Sisters at Classic Stage Company (through March 6), Austin Pendleton emphasizes the saddest aspects of the play and the sense of defeat in its people, and he makes lots of vivid stage pictures and even gets a flavor of old Russia into it, especially in a scene where everyone starts drinking too much. Pendleton makes canny use of the large playing space, bringing out the feeling of a vast, neglected house, a place that was once filled with vital people and is now left with only hangers-on.

There are a number of fine performances in this production, but the two that stand out are Maggie Gyllenhaal's volatile Masha and Marin Ireland's spastic Natasha. Gyllenhaal is living her role from the moment she steps on stage, and she stays true to the self-absorbed emotions of the part even at the risk of exhausting herself and her audience; she is working from the inside out, whereas Ireland gives an extravagantly mannered portrayal that starts with large surface effects and gradually works its way inside the sense of grievance at the core of Natasha's crude obliviousness. Gyllenhaal's very internal agony is matched in size by Ireland's external vulgarity, so that it becomes clear in this reading just how similar these two women are, for all of their differences in class and bearing (unfortunately, Gyllenhaal bypasses the best joke in the play, when Masha observes toward the end of the fire scene ordeal that Natasha acts like she started the blaze herself). Of the men, Josh Hamilton is a near-perfect Andrey, writhing away in little brotherly weakness, and Anson Mount is an alarmingly perfect Solyony, an imploding psychopath let loose in a drawing room.

Pendleton is working with a disparate group of actors in a play that cries out for the unified effect of a repertory company, but he still manages to get some miraculously life-like rhythms going, and all of the characters are drawn with such tender detail by Chekhov that watching even a competent version of Three Sisters is like being at a party that you never want to leave, or being drunk in just the right three-vodka way. In a cast of this size, inevitably some of the players aren't going to be perfect or near-perfect: Peter Sarsgaard is so badly miscast as Vershinin that it's hard to tell what interpretation he might be going for, and Ebon Moss-Bachrach is far too casual as Baron Tuzenbach, throwing away his heartbreaking last scene. But Gyllenhaal's bruised sensuality, Ireland's boldly physical work, and Pendleton's focused direction make this a Chekhov production worth savoring.

(photo credit: Joan Marcus)

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