That jolly threesome the Prozorov sisters are back, unlucky in love, unhappy in the provinces and longing to return to Moscow.
This latest revival of Chekhov’s comedy of manor, “Three Sisters,” is led by Maggie Gyllenhaal and her husband, Peter Sarsgaard. She is Masha, the snotty sister; he, Virshinin, the virile army officer who represents all that Masha’s Caspar Milquetoast of a husband isn’t. Virshinin doesn’t so much sweep Masha off her feet as sweep the cuckolded Kulygin (Paul Lazar) under the rug, at least until the lieutenant colonel’s battalion is transferred to the Polish front.
Stranded in stasis with Masha are the eldest, Olga (Jessica Hecht), a spinster teacher and Irina (Juliet Rylance), the youngest, vowing not to settle for Baron Tuzenbach (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), whose passion she cannot requite.
Their violin-playing brother Andrey’s (Josh Hamilton) gambling debts have put the family at the mercy of his wife Natasha (Marin Ireland), who seems to have parachuted into their genteel habitation from planet Vulgarville.
I wish I could take all this lachrymosity as seriously as the estimable director, Austin Pendleton. And I’d wholeheartedly blame Chekhov himself (the deck is awfully stacked) had I not seen productions of “Three Sisters” that were less starry but less stagy, too, and which had the spark of life that is mostly absent at New York’s Classic Stage Company.
The disconnect is compounded by Paul Schmidt’s coarse, anachronistic translation (Natasha calls her husband Andy and her babies darlin’).
Gyllenhaal can’t lift Masha’s mean digs above bitchiness; at times she comes across as being too inside a joke we’re not privy to. Sarsgaard, on the other hand, finds an appealing balance in Virshinin’s mix of self-importance and vulnerability. Hecht brings a relievedly light touch to the unrelievedly whiny Olga. Rylance has moments of grace as the torn kid sister. Did Hamilton’s Andrey wander in from the Think Coffee shop around the corner?
They’ve been given an elegant setting by Walt Spangler that relies heavily on mirrors with patina and a huge central dining table, melancholically lit by Keith Parham. The sisters’ demure gowns and the rest of the fine costumes are by Marco Piemontese.
To experience just how powerful the play can be, look to the Anfisa of Roberta Maxwell (and, to an only slightly lesser extent, Louis Zorich’s avuncular doctor). She is the aging servant lurking throughout Chekhov’s theater works, pricking the conscience. Maxwell, who has been creating indelible women on New York stages for more than three decades, need only shuffle a few feet and widen her bottomless eyes to convey Anfisa’s squelched dreams. Rating: **
Through March 6 at 136 E. 13th St., New York. Information: +1-212--352-3101; http://www.classicstage.org.
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Very Good ** Average * Not So Good (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)