Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece “The Three Sisters” is back, and I’m very pleased to see it yet another time. But first: A couple of weeks ago I complained about having to sit through another “The Importance of Being Earnest.” In retrospect, it was wrong of me to assume that others might also be equally unenthusiastic about the Oscar Wilde comedy that many authorities of dramatic literature consider the greatest comedy ever written. Notwithstanding my guarded review, the public and a majority of the “other” critics have made it a resounding success for the Roundabout Theater where the run has been extended to July 3.
“The Three Sisters” is, by all accounts, revived with almost as much regularity. Considering the wonder of it as simply being a brilliant play, it has the ability to satisfy every aspect of a pleasurable theater experience. Visit after visit, production after production, this play can be counted on to be its own reward. The one now being presented by the Classic Stage Company, under the direction Austin Pendleton, is a constant joy even with the inherent sorrows that this dramatic comedy so formidably displays.
At its most sublime, “The Three Sisters” simply defies the label comedy or drama. While Chekhov speaks to us through the anguish of Masha, Olga, and Irina about the destiny of enervated classes who do not have the courage to actively pursue their dreams, it is through the actors that we must see and share the alternating highs and lows of a particularized and profoundly foolish humanity. And through the actors, we also see all this without losing the universality of these specifically Russian souls.
Above all, those hapless lives, no matter how adrift, must be lived. And how they live within designer Walt Spangler’s almost startlingly affective setting that uses an enormous dining room table in ways that you cannot easily imagine. Director Pendleton is no slouch when it comes to either teaching, directing, or performing in Chekhov. He has delivered, with a responsive cast, a vital account of a play that many consider to be among the 10 greatest ever written. It is no small feat that he enables us to feel the pulse of life within the last remaining aristocrats who reside in the smothering atmosphere of a remote Russian garrison town.
The pulse rate is rapid and as visceral as are the punctuations of humor that help define those occasionally brooding, long-suffering sisters Prozorov. What are we to make of the frustrations that bond them and that also make them reach out beyond the grimness of their lives? Here is where this ensemble shines. We are as amused and haunted by their indulgent behavior as they in turn appear to be ironically and bemusedly aware of their own state of personal dullness.
Don’t be misled into thinking that a play about three sisters pining away the days while fantasizing about returning to Moscow is dull doings. Masha (Maggie Gyllenhaal), married to a naive high school teacher, is having a passionate dalliance with Vershinin (Peter Sarsgaard), a married army colonel whose forte is philosophizing. Gyllenhaal, who was previously directed by Pendleton (as was Sarsgaard) in the Classic Stage Company’s “Uncle Vanya,” seesaws quite exhilaratingly between passion and pain, boredom and ecstasy, and the many contradictory emotions essential in the role. I was less taken, however, by Sarsgaard’s slightly smarmy countenance, an affection, that seemed to grow exponentially during the course of the play.
At their most sublime, the perpetually tormented sisters can be seen as wallowing almost ecstatically in their self-absorption. This is particularly evident in the blissfully desperate anxieties projected by Juliet Rylance as the youthful Irina, who contemplates either a life of loneliness or a marriage to an ardent and unattractive (to her) Baron (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). As certain characters occasionally burst forth in a new light, so does Moss-Bachrach (whom you may remember as John Quincy Adams in the HBO miniseries “John Adams”), who implants upon the Baron a disarmingly unsophisticated state of self-consciousness.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that Jessica Hecht is an actor (Tony nominated for “A View from the Bridge”) who can be depended upon to break your heart. She does, indeed, as Olga, a school teacher who dreams of going to Moscow as an escape from her provincial and petty life. The household is visibly shaken when Andrey (convincingly acted by Josh Hamilton), the self-absorbed brother, marries Natasha (Marin Ireland), a shrewd and cunning peasant girl who moves into the family home he has just mortgaged without his sisters’ consent to pay gambling debts. Ireland, who has been earning well-deserved praise for her performances both off and on Broadway, also serves Chekhov beautifully, giving a performance that is chillingly unsettling in its self-centered persuasiveness.
This ensemble — which includes Anson Mount as a psychopathic soldier, Roberta Maxwell as the useless old nurse, and Paul Lazar as Kulygin, the nerdish innocent high school teacher — has found numerous ways in which to convey and underscore the ironies of Chekhov’s idealism and proselytizing. I can’t recall how many times over the years I’ve seen Louis Zorich make a unique and lasting imprint in a significant Chekhovian role, but he is superb as Chebutykin, the cynical old doctor whose mordantly humorous philosophy, “What difference does it make,” threads its way through three extraordinary hours. ****
“The Three Sisters,” through Sunday March 6, Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street. $75; $80 for weekends. 866-811-4111 212-352-3101 or www.classicstage.org.