Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater, the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space
511 West 52nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Monday - Saturday through August 17
Earlier this year, I declared Wheelhouse Theater’s Life Sucks., Aaron Posner’s hysterical adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, to be one of the best plays of the year. You can add to that list Halley Feiffer’s uproarious Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow, an ingenious version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. The past few years have seen an explosion of clever, entertaining takes on classic nineteenth-century works by Jane Austen, Henrik Ibsen, William Makepeace Thackeray, Louisa May Alcott, Chekhov, and others, including Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird (The Seagull) at the now-defunct Pearl, Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Kate Hamill’s Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Vanity Fair, and Little Women, and Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 (not to mention Taylor Mac’s vaudevillian Shakespeare update, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus). Feiffer and director Trip Cullman have transformed Three Sisters into a viciously satiric and riotous black comedy that gets right to the heart of Chekhov’s 1900 tragedy: Life. Really. Does. Suck. . . . Big-time. Chekhov funny? Well, there’s a reason Pulitzer Prize winner Lanford Wilson subtitled his 1994 translation of Three Sisters “A Comedy in Four Acts.”
Continuing at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space through August 17, Moscow . . . takes place on Mark Wendland’s spare set, with a few pieces of furniture on an elevated central platform, the audience seated on two sides, facing each other. At one end is a clock that keeps ticking through most of the show, which is annoying until you get used to it. At the other end is a large, colorful mural of Moscow, or “Mockba,” taunting the Prozorova clan, who desperately want to return to their home city, which they departed from when their father’s brigade was reassigned to the country. As the play opens, it is eleven years to the day since they left, in addition to the one-year anniversary of their father’s death and Irina’s (Tavi Gevinson) twentieth birthday, and her celebration isn’t going well. “No offense, but this is the worst party I have ever attended,” middle sister Masha (Chris Perfetti) says. Meanwhile, oldest sister and teacher Olga (Rebecca Henderson) is going off on herself, declaring, “I look like shit, but what else is new. I’ve always looked like shit. Even when I was born, I looked like a little baby-shaped turd. . . . I’m not complaining, mind you. Just stating facts.”
The ersatz leader of this supremely dysfunctional and perpetually depressed family is violinist and intellectual Andrey (Greg Hildreth, who played Olaf in Frozen), an underachiever with the hots for Natasha Ivanovna (Sas Goldberg), who Masha calls “the duuuuuumbest whore.” Soon joining the party are alcoholic army doctor Ivan Romanich Chebutykin (Ray Anthony Thomas), who is holding a torch for the siblings’ long-dead mother; Baron Nikolai Lvovich Tuzenbach (Steven Boyer, whose portrayal of the baron recalls Jeff Biehl’s performance as Vanya in Life Sucks.), who is in love with Irina but is probably gay; Captain Vassily Vasilyevich Solyony (Matthew Jeffers), an angry man obsessed with violence and who regularly sprays perfume in front of himself and then walks into the mist, attempting to make his whole being fragrant; and Alexander Ignatych Vershinin (Alfredo Narciso), a ruggedly handsome lieutenant colonel with a suicidal wife and two daughters and who is in love with Masha, who is married to mousey Latin teacher Fyodor Ilyich Kulygin (Ryan Spahn, who cocreated the Web series What’s Your Emergency with Feiffer).
As Andrey and the sisters go nowhere and do nothing, Natasha turns power hungry; meanwhile, Kulygin adores his wife and so puts up with her endless put-downs. “Amo amas amat!” Kukygin says. “UGGHHH!!!” Masha responds despondently. Also shuffling around are the siblings’ elderly, bent-over servant, Anfisa (Ako), who can’t really do much anymore, and the extremely hard-of-hearing octogenarian Ferapont (Gene Jones). “Fuck all of us,” Chebutykin proclaims with a laugh. Indeed, they are all fucked, in one way or another, as they lambaste each other and take refuge in their shared anhedonia, refusing to be happy, mired in their communal misery. It’s a comic frenzy, from start to finish.
Longtime collaborators Feiffer (The Pain of My Belligerence, I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard) and Cullman (Lobby Hero, Six Degrees of Separation) have captured the essence of Chekhov and Three Sisters, taking the themes of loneliness, home, family, cuckoldry, and unrequited love to rousing extremes. Paloma Young’s costumes contribute mightily to the merriment, particularly Masha’s elegant black mourning dress, worn beautifully by Perfetti (The Low Road, Picnic), who looked resplendent in a white gown a few years back in the Atlantic’s revival of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine, and Henderson (The Wayside Motor Inn, Bright Half Life) in a stylish “J’aime Rodarte, Je Deteste Rodarte” gray T-shirt. The whole cast has a blast, as does the audience in this relentlessly absurd and knee-slapping show that honors Chekhov in its comic madness. For those who believe that life actually does suck, it’s plays like this that give us hope that maybe, just maybe, things aren’t so bad after all in our own lives.