Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow, Halley Feiffer’s reworking of Three Sisters, squanders a promising premise by wallowing in its own imagined cleverness. Essentially a translation of Chekhov into Millennial upspeak rather than a substantial adaptation, it suffers from the problem of subtraction by addition: it retains the elements of melodramatic excess that are often leveled against Chekhov’s work, while removing the sparkling humanity that make his characters among the most enduringly sympathetic in dramatic literature.
Feiffer shows little understanding of the source material. The early scenes brim with possibility, as the familiar Prozorov sisters – dour Olga (Rebecca Henderson), jaded Masha (Chris Perfetti), and hopeful Irina (Tavi Gevinson) – deconstruct and lampoon their famous ennui. Olga still complains about her headaches and the shitty little brats she tries to teach at the local high school, but she also laments that she no longer derives any pleasure from masturbation. Masha once again finds herself in an unfulfilling marriage to Kulygin (Ryan Spahn) – here not an ineffective old man, but a recognizable gay stereotype, costumed (by Paloma Young) in a Cats hoodie – and quietly hints at her suicidal ideation. Plus ça change.
Irina even asks the question you’ve probably wanted to shout at the stage if you’ve seen one or twelve past productions of the ur-play: “Wait sorry really quick maybe this is dumb but like why can’t we just go back to Moscow?” But don’t expect Feiffer to delve below the surface and explore what keeps these women, and the collection of soldiers and civil servants in their orbit, frustratingly frozen in place. Instead, she replaces emotion with emojis and fixes her characters in a permanent state of smirkiness.
The play feels less fresh and focused than when I first encountered it at the Williamstown Theatre Festival two summers ago. Despite trimming the running time from two-and-a-half hours to ninety-five intermissionless minutes, a feeling of flabbiness emerges almost immediately, as it becomes clear that new insight isn’t among Feiffer’s top priorities. She might be riffing on the oft-repeated explanation that Chekhov’s plays are comedies at heart, but to privilege flippant humor over the underlying poignancy is to miss the point completely.
Several characterizations highlight this fatal flaw. Natasha (Sas Goldberg), the arriviste wife of Prozorov scion Andrey (an excellent Greg Hildreth), here only seems like a relentless harridan. She is meant to be crude and even unfeeling at times, but Chekhov colors her ruthless rise to the upper social strata with the knowledge that she was born poor, and looked down upon. That backstory fails to materialize in Feiffer’s script or in Goldberg’s unremittingly frenetic performance.
This adaptation similarly turns Vershinin, the “lovesick major” who leaves Masha besotted, into a tin soldier, leaving Alfredo Narciso precious little nuance to play. The casting of a cisgender male actor as Masha – and the choice by Perfetti to play the role neither self-consciously nor with verisimilitude – further hinders the subplot.
Similarly, Tuzenbach’s provincial arrogance becomes the preening behavior of a spoiled child, although Steven Boyer wisely uses understatement whenever he can. The always lovely Ako has everything one needs for a sympathetic Anfisa, the family’s aged servant, but her performance is upstaged by a series of sight gags involving walkers, wheelchairs, and incongruous wigs.
Trip Cullman’s production is as brash and obvious as the script it serves, but sinks matters even further. Mark Wendland’s set design features a garish pictorial representation of beloved, lost Moscow, underneath a flashing sign that reads “MOCKBA” (the Latinized version of the city’s Cyrillic name.) Having this scene always in the line of vision is one more overly blatant choice. So too is Darron L. West’s sound design, punctuated by a persistently ticking clock. Everyone in the play is wasting their lives – get it?
Cullman seems to have instructed every actor in the production to employ every bit of business they know as soon as they make their first entrances. This results in a relatively short evening that feels interminable, because it largely lacks a sense of surprise or discovery. Some actors – like Henderson, who can’t help being sympathetic and funny – rise above it. Others – like Gevinson, who remains a limited performer even after a half-dozen stage appearances – don’t.
Only Hildreth and Ray Anthony Thomas, as the tragically alcoholic Doctor Chebutykin, consistently impress throughout. Chebutykin gets the same crude treatment as everyone else, with the character’s subtext shoved well above the water, but Thomas manages to mine what remains with a sense of utter clarity. Any moment he takes center stage has the potential to provoke real heartache, which is otherwise in short supply.
Feiffer is hardly the first playwright to put herself in dialogue with Three Sisters. (The late South African playwright Reza de Wet, for example, brilliantly reimagined the work as an allegory for her home country’s post-Apartheid reality in Three Sisters Two.) Nor is she the first established writer to push a classic play to the point of parody. Walking home from the beautiful new Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, where the work is receiving its New York Premiere, my friend and I landed on the sharp satires of Tennessee Williams and Sam Shepard that Christopher Durang penned in the 1980s. Perhaps the secret to success with those plays was that few passed the twenty-minute mark.
Or maybe it’s that Durang and De Wet actually had something to say. He spoofed both the hetero-excess of Shepard and Williams’s queer Southern mores. She took a classic work and fixed it with a new societal frame. Even in its best moments, Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow doesn’t rise to either level. It merely sneers and expects its audience to swoon.