Halley Feiffer’s loud, broad, hip, hyperactive, foul-mouthed, unconventionally cast, aggressively playful and generally off-beat adaptation of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” was upstaged earlier this week with the announcement of a forthcoming production of the same Chekhov play. The new “Three Sisters,” at New York Theatre Workshop starring Oscar Isaac and Greta Gerwig, was greeted with great enthusiasm, although I wasn’t sure whether the excitement was coming from Chekhov enthusiasts or from fans of the two stars; I suspect more the latter, although maybe both.
The reaction provoked an unfair question: Who had been as excited to hear that Hally Feiffer had jazzed up “Three Sisters” and renamed it “Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow”? (Creating an overlong and annoying title is a Feiffer trademark. ) Who is the audience for this production?
The answer could have been me. This is for two reasons. First, if there are no outright celebrities who perform in “Moscow…,” the cast is full of New York actors who have an impressive track record of memorable performances. One example out of the many is Chris Perfetti, who was hilarious as the sniveling scoundrel in last year’s The Low Road and spot-on as both a demure wife and an out-loud gay man in Cloud NIne. In “Moscow…”, he portrays the middle sister, Masha, the one who is unhappily married when the play begins, and doesn’t want to go on an outing with her boring husband, Kolgyin, a Latin teacher, to his headmaster’s house. So, someone asks, why go? “Because…that’s what life is I think? Just doing horrible things and complaining about them?”
And that line is an example of the second reason why I might have loved this production. It’s funny, and bluntly brings to the surface what in standard productions of the play is left as subtext.
If truth be told, many productions I’ve seen of Chekhov’s plays are intimidating in their tastefulness, forgetting that Chekhov proclaimed “Three Sisters” a comedy. It felt nearly refreshing when the oldest sister Olga (Rebecca Henderson) in “Moscow….” performed what was in effect an aria of self-hatred with the word “shit” as its metronome. (“I’ve always looked like shit. Everything about me looks like shit…” etc.)
Yet “Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, Moscow” eventually wore out its welcome, albeit not as quickly as I tired of its title. The production is not a random collection of parody, allusion and shtick. It follows Chekhov’s plot fairly faithfully, the story of three sisters in the Russian countryside who long for a better life back in Moscow where they were raised, but over the years settle for a sad one. Yet, for all the talents of the cast, Feiffer and director Trip Cullman inject so much distracting and distancing zaniness – meta-theatrical bits, exaggerated readings, anachronisms and non-sequiturs, physical comedy, even attention-grabbing lighting — that the bells and whistles of the production make it a challenge to engage in the hopes and fears of the characters.
There is a visible metaphor for the primary tone of “Moscow….” in the marquee-like sign of light bulbs that forms the word “Moscow” in Russian, placed above and dominating a painted landscape of the city, and Mark Wendland’s otherwise largely spare set. The razzmatazz of that marquee makes it unlikely anybody would be willing or able to focus on the details in the painting underneath.
The biggest obstacle to caring about the characters may be what initially seemed the most refreshing aspect of the adaptation — the in-your-face 21st century slang ( “those guys are such friggin’ tools.”) Feiffer has said that she wanted to translate the play into “millennial speak” because the three sisters’ obsession with their own unhappiness reminds her of her own generation. It’s unclear to me why present-day theatergoers in their thirties couldn’t appreciate the elegiac, subtle and melancholy aspects of Chekhov’s play — why these qualities needed to be pushed aside in favor of the relentlessly expletive-laced, air-headed dialogue. Sure it can be funny; I won’t deny laughing. But I can’t recall a single moment that moved me.
Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow
Written by Halley Feiffer,
Directed by Trip Cullman
Scenic design by Mark Wendland , costume design by Paloma Young, lighting design by Ben Stanton, and sound design by Darron L Wes
Cast: Ako, Steven Boyer, Tavi Gevinson, Sas Goldberg, Rebecca Henderson, Greg Hildreth, Matthew Jeffers, Gene Jones, Alfredo Narciso, Chris Perfetti, Ryan Spahn, and Ray Anthony Thomas.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $64 to $84
MoscowX6 is running through August 3, 2019
Update: Extended to August 17, 2019.