Of all his plays, Three Sisters is the only one Chekhov labels a drama. Yet in director Pavol Liska’s pared-down version, comedy takes center stage. Set against an enormous plateau of white linoleum tile and a travel poster reading “Moscow: The Place to Be,” the self-involved antics of Chekhov’s self-fashioned intellectuals take on hilarious absurdity. Liska encourages his capable ensemble to clownishly overplay their emotional outpourings and metaphysical musings. Zachary Oberzan as Vershinin shouts his predictions of a utopian future with gusto, only to drop suddenly back to a depressive haze. Walker Lewis as Andrey, aided by a few choice anachronisms, expresses his boundless disappointment in life by watching pornographic videos while caring for his infant and picking through the trash for uneaten tortilla chips as he engages in conversation with other characters.
Were Chekhov simply a brilliant satirist, Liska’s adaptation might show signs of genius. But the dramatist’s strength lies in coupling comedy with nuanced portrayals of human anguish, and on this count Liska falls short. He does little to distinguish between piercing self-reflection and self-absorbed prattle, and he instructs his actors to holler some of the most wrenching monologues in Western literature. Liska makes us expertly aware of our human foibles, but his adaptation captures little of the vulnerability or beauty of Chekhov’s singular drama.