I startled a colleague recently by saying that I had never seen a completely successful Chekhov production. It’s always a mystery to me when people acclaim a staging of one of the playwright’s works as a total triumph. The simple truth is that Chekhov is complicated. His four masterpieces are all big-scale canvases, like Seurat’s La Grande Jatte, built up out of innumerable tiny moments. Leaning too heavily on any of those moments, in performance, is the equivalent of making the viewer stand too close to the painting; it turns into an apparently meaningless welter of varicolored dots. Only when a director’s shaping hand provides sufficient distance do the dots coalesce into a unified picture.
Austin Pendleton’s revival of The Three Sisters (Classic Stage Company) unexpectedly proves my point. Pendleton’s earlier productions have established him as a director strong at shaping individual performances but often uncertain with a play’s overall form and flow. Here, with a celebrity-laden cast in a play he knows well, he gets opposite results: The individual performances are uneven, a few of them grievously inadequate, but the overarching sense of Chekhov’s drama is caught; you feel its emotional arc as it curves on. Despite its stumbles and patchy areas, the evening conveys the cumulative power of Chekhov’s nontragic tragedy.
Three small-town girls who spent their childhood in Moscow dream of nothing but going back there; they have the price of a ticket but never go. That capsule summary of Three Sisters, though perfectly accurate, omits everything meaningful about it. Moscow is only a dream; no train will take you there. Instead, the late Colonel Prozorov’s three genteel daughters (Jessica Hecht, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Juliet Rylance) get bogged down in family affairs, love affairs, the drudgery of work, and all the other things that genteelly bred young ladies hate dealing with. They all survive, but grimly, their dreams washed up.
On an ingenious set by Walt Spangler, Pendleton scores some individual triumphs: Rylance’s deep, fraught Irina; Ebon Moss-Bachrach as her diffident suitor, Tuzenbach; Paul Lazar as Masha’s half-aware pipsqueak husband. Gyllenhaal (Masha), Hecht (Olga), and Josh Hamilton as their hapless brother all achieve solid results. Likewise, expectably, Louis Zorich’s drunken doctor and Roberta Maxwell’s harried old servant; Marin Ireland’s Natasha is hampered chiefly by lapses in Paul Schmidt’s otherwise astute translation. Only the drama’s two disruptive forces, Vershinin (Peter Sarsgaard) and Solyony (Anson Mount), come off ineffectually.