Review: Three Sisters

The stars align for an excellent revival of Chekhov's classic.

  • Photograph: Joan Marcus


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Photograph: Joan Marcus


Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

Be sure to note how the title siblings of Three Sisters are positioned at the end of the play; it says a lot about the production. Most versions have Masha, Olga and Irina in tight formation abreast, gazing tragically into the middle distance of a barren, Moscow-less future. In Austin Pendleton's shockingly tender and lucid version for Classic Stage Company, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Juliet Rylance and Jessica Hecht huddle in a clump, facing away from the audience with heads bowed, a triple-backed mass of female grief. Lee Strasberg apparently created the same tableau for his 1964 Actors Studio version. Like Strasberg, Pendleton is a consummate actors' director; he'd rather obscure the performers' faces, keep their unspeakably painful emotions among themselves.

And it doesn't stint the impact on us one bit. Besides having three powerhouses in the main roles, Pendleton does outstanding work with Peter Sarsgaard as the miserably married army colonel Vershinin, as well as Marin Ireland, unexpectedly funny and scary as the bossy parvenue Natasha, who marries the sisters' jelly-willed brother, Andrey (Josh Hamilton), then proceeds to bully everyone in the household. There's not an off note in the ensemble, with finely etched portraits from Ebon Moss-Bachrach as the sweetly optimistic Baron Tuzenbach and Anson Mount's manic-depressive Solyony. It would be unfair to single out any of the lead women for special praise, but suffice it to say that each incarnates the various intense states that course through Chekhov's drama: languid cruelty (Gyllenhaal); wilting youthful hope (Rylance); and grimly desperate solitude (Hecht).

As critic Richard Gilman pointed out, the major theme in Chekhov's final four works was an almost Beckettian endurance in the face of futility and certain failure; that may be what gives the plays their humor and harrowing pathos. Intimate and finely textured, Pendleton's actors know how to make melancholy persistence thrilling to watch. And if you find this limited run sold out due to celebrity casting, at least the stars are perfectly aligned.

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Classic Stage Company (see Off Broadway). By Anton Chekhov. Dir. Austin Pendleton. With ensemble cast. 3hrs. Two intermissions.