Eye on Theatre: Three Sisters By John Simon

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Simon_John CHEKHOV_Photo 9 Maggie Gyllenhaal, Juliet Rylance, Jessica Hecht Photo Credit Joan Marcus Give Chekhov a fine production such as Classic Stage Company‭’‬s‭ ‬Three Sisters,‭ ‬and you get what is genuine,‭ ‬live masterwork theater.‭ ‬Even in the three-quarters round,‭ ‬not the most accommodating format,‭ ‬Austin Pendleton‭’‬s mounting is a milestone. 

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Juliet Rylance, Jessica Hecht. ^^^

CHECKOV_Photo 8. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Juliet Rylance Photo by Joan Marcus<<< Maggie Gyllenhaal and Juliet Rylance.

 The three Prozorov sisters have gone down in theatrical history as province-bound souls,‭ ‬desperately longing to return to Moscow,‭ ‬but condemned to small-town frustration.‭ ‬It is,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬a drama of much greater scope,‭ ‬featuring several characters who,‭ ‬comically or tragically,‭ ‬resignedly or rebelliously,‭ ‬endure unfulfilled lives.‭ ‬The attempts of a couple of them to extricate themselves are beaten down by unyielding destiny.

CHEKHOV_Photo 7  Maggie Gyllenhaal.  Phot credit  Joan Marcus <<<Maggie Gyllenhaal. 

The sisters,‭ ‬though devoted,‭ ‬are very different.‭ ‬Olga,‭ ‬the eldest,‭ ‬is sturdy and practical,‭ ‬a teacher and reluctant headmistress.‭ ‬Masha,‭ ‬the middle one,‭ ‬married to a seedy but delusory schoolmaster,‭ ‬is the artistic one,‭ ‬who falls for the unhappily married colonel Vershinin,‭ ‬commander of the temporarily local army battery.‭ ‬Irina,‭ ‬the youngest,‭ ‬a post office clerk,‭ ‬is a romantic dreamer,‭ ‬who brought down to earth agrees to a respectful but loveless marriage,‭ ‬only to have her decent fiancé killed in a senseless duel.

There is also the hapless‭ ‬Prozorov‭ ‬brother,‭ ‬Andrey,‭ ‬an unworldly amateur violinist and gambling addict,‭ ‬married to the unfaithful Natasha,‭ ‬one of the worst termagants ever put on a stage,‭ ‬a menace not only to him but also the entire family,‭ ‬and everybody else,‭ ‬except her babies,‭ ‬whom she fanatically idolizes.‭ ‬Add to this Baron Tuzenbach,‭ ‬Irina‭’‬s touchingly optimistic but doomed suitor‭; ‬the elderly army doctor Chebutykin,‭ ‬too drunk and forgetful of his calling,‭ ‬and turned‭ ‬nearly‭ ‬total cynic‭; ‬and Anfisa,‭ ‬a faithful old servant whom Natasha cruelly fires.‭ ‬Also captain Solyony,‭ ‬a maladjusted,‭ ‬megalomaniacal fantast,‭ ‬who fancies himself a romantic hero out of Lermontov.‭ 

CHEKHOV_Photo 11. Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal  Photo credit Joan Marcus Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal.>>>

Sounds bleak,‭ ‬doesn‭’‬t it‭? ‬But thanks to Chekhov‭’‬s artistry,‭ ‬it emerges almost as funny as melancholy.‭ ‬This is achieved by the author loving his characters,‭ ‬however foolish,‭ ‬errant,‭ ‬and even ridiculous.‭ ‬Three Sisters‭ ‬is a long play that doesn‭’‬t contain a single unabsorbing minute.‭ ‬We are on what we take to be an amusing if a trifle scary rollercoaster ride,‭ ‬and only gradually realize what it is:‭ ‬life.

CHEKHOV_Photo 3 Josh Hamilton and Marin Ireland Photo credit_  Joan Marcus<<<Josh Hamilton and Marin Ireland.

Austin Pendleton‭ (‬himself also an actor and dramatist‭) ‬has directed with consummate ingenuity and variety,‭ ‬as well as nowadays rare fidelity to the text,‭ ‬well translated by Paul Schmidt.‭ ‬On a stage that does not allow for‭ ‬much scenery,‭ ‬either unit or changing,‭ ‬Pendleton has‭ ‬made clever use of a long table variously placed,‭ ‬and very little else.‭ ‬He has kept the actors steadily moving or movingly fixed,‭ ‬without ever making the stage traffic become arbitrary or overpowering the dialogue.‭ ‬And,‭ ‬admirably,‭ ‬he has allowed a good many,‭ ‬highly dramatic pauses.

The cast,‭ ‬on the whole,‭ ‬is excellent.‭ ‬Jessica Hecht is a somewhat unconventional,‭ ‬more pliably compassionate Olga‭; ‬Maggie Gyllenhaal,‭ ‬an only slightly too flaky,‭ ‬deliquescent Masha‭; ‬and Juliet Rylance an utterly credible,‭ ‬touching Irina.‭ ‬Peter‭ ‬Sargaard–playing Chekhov‭’‬s as it were patented character,‭ ‬the believer in a better but very distant future,‭ ‬which we must‭ ‬,‭ ‬however unrewardedly,‭ ‬lay foundations for‭—‬is only slightly hampered by a rather ordinary voice.

Ebon‭ ‬Moss-Bachrach is the perfect Tuzenbach,‭ ‬rather ungainly,‭ ‬quixotically believing in a work-engendered rosy future,‭ ‬and‭ ‬heartbreakingly lovable.‭ ‬Louis Zorich is an all-too-believable,‭ ‬dogged nihilist as Chebutykin,‭ ‬warm only to the sisters.‭ ‬As Masha‭’‬s comic-pathetic schoolmaster husband,‭ ‬Kulyigin,‭ ‬Paul Lazar is an immaculately portrayer of self-deludedness.‭ ‬Anson Mount,‭ ‬an apt enough Solyony,‭ ‬is perhaps a shade‭ ‬less ominous than called for.‭ ‬The experienced‭ ‬Roberta Maxwell is an‭ ‬utterly moving Anfisa.

CHEKHOV_Photo 4 Juliet Rylance and Jessica Hecht Photo by Joan Marcus<<<Juliet Rylance and Jessica Hecht.

Best of all,‭ ‬perhaps,‭ ‬is the Andrey of Josh Hamilton,‭ ‬in a multilayered performance that‭ ‬encompasses several conflicted emotions with terrifying verisimilitude.‭ ‬Heartrending are his attempts to fool others and himself into perceiving Natasha as the perfect wife,‭ ‬and just the way he pushes around an unloved baby in its stroller,‭ ‬with‭ ‬his‭ ‬accompanying emotional ouburst,‭ ‬is theater at its most memorable.‭ ‬The only‭ ‬disappointment is Marin Ireland,‭ ‬who makes the thoroughgoingly unlikable‭ ‬Natasha‭ ‬into a too schematic monster.

CHEKHOV_Photo 6 Maggie Gyllenhaal.  Photo credit  Joan Marcus <<<Maggie Gyllenhaal.

A few minor characters are expertly handled,‭ ‬and there can be nothing but praise for Walt Spangler‭’‬s décor,‭ ‬Keith Parham‭’‬s lighting,‭ ‬and Marco Piemontese‭’‬s costumes.‭ ‬All in all,‭ ‬I would be surprised if there were this season another show as‭  ‬good,‭ ‬let alone even minimally better.

Classic Stage Company

136‭ ‬East‭ ‬13th Street

Tickets:‭ (‬212‭) ‬352-3101‭ ‬or


Photos by and courtesy of Joan Marcus. 

John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com andBloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review andWashington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a  PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College. To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.

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eHeziEye on Theatre: Three Sisters By John Simon

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