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If you’ve ever watched a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters and thought, “What this play really needs is for one of the characters to sit on a whoopie cushion,” then do I have the show for you.
It’s Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow, the latest effort from Halley Feiffer, who apparently doesn’t give much thought to the size of theater marquees. This is the playwright, after all, whose previous efforts include such pithily titled comedies as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City. I hope you’ll understand that for brevity’s sake, I’ll be shortening the title of this comic riff on Chekhov to Moscow for the remainder of this review.
Apparently of the opinion that there is just too much darn subtext in Chekhov’s 1901 classic, Feiffer has updated it, in style if not in its setting, so that the characters express their angst-ridden feelings like overcaffeinated millennials. The plot, situations and characters essentially remain the same, but the anachronism-heavy language is profane and the humor frequently lapses into slapstick. In this version, Andrey (Greg Hildreth), the sisters’ brother, and Natasha (Sas Goldberg, stealing the show much like she did in Significant Other), don’t merely express their love for each other. They vigorously hump all over the stage like rabbits in heat.
And speaking of heat, there’s plenty generated by the beautiful youngest sibling Irina (Tavi Gevinson, This Is Our Youth, The Crucible), who expresses irritation when the social outcast Solyony (Matthew Jeffers), among others, tells her he’s in love with her. “Does everyone think I have a golden pussy or something?” she snaps at him. Irina is also pursued by her good friend Tuzenbach (Stephen Boyer, Hand to God), who has to keep denying that he’s gay. She doesn’t reciprocate his feelings, in any case. “I just want to marry someone I’m in love with, okay?” she tells him. “I don’t feel like that’s such a BFD.”
The casting is aggressively nontraditional, including a cross-dressing Chris Perfetti as the married Masha, who falls in love with the handsome and dashing Vershinin (Alfredo Narciso). When Moscow premiered two summers ago at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Masha was played by Cristin Milioti, who was unavailable for this production. So the role was recast with a man, because, presumably, why not? But while Perfetti brings admirable dignity and pathos to his subtle performance, the gender-switching adds absolutely nothing to the proceedings.
And so it goes, with the broadly satirical humor lacking the necessary wit to justify this sendup’s existence. (It just makes you wish the late, great Charles Ludlam had taken a crack at the source material.) You’ll have to decide for yourself if you think it’s amusing when the miserably unhappy Olga (Rebecca Henderson, drolly funny) assures the elderly servant Anfisa (Ako), “You are an old bitch. But you’re my old bitch!” Or when she breaks into tears when someone plays Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” on the piano. Or when Vershinin informs the others, “My wife tried to kill herself again,” and then shrugs and offers a breezy, “See you guys soon!”
There is such a profusion of gags that some of them, especially those of the meta-theatrical variety, inevitably land. Those not well-versed in Three Sisters (and if you aren’t, you’ll miss a lot of the jokes), for instance, will certainly relate to Olga’s complaint, “I get confused with all the names.”
But once you see what Feiffer is going for, and you will very early on, the humor quickly starts to feel forced and repetitious. Moscow calms down a bit in the second act, channeling more of the poignancy of its inspiration, but by then it’s hard to feel emotionally invested in the turmoil of characters who have become little more than caricatures. (BTW, it’s often a telling sign when a show’s intermission is removed during previews, as it was in this production. It usually means that too many audience members were taking the opportunity to flee.)
Director Trip Cullman, a frequent collaborator of the playwright who’s clearly attuned to her off-kilter comic wavelength, delivers a sprightly staging. And the large ensemble throw themselves into their performances with gusto, often getting laughs with what seems like sheer force of will. Mark Wendland’s set design, dominated by the Russian word for “Moscow” spelled out in light bulbs and a large-scale drawing of the city, and Paloma Young’s mix of period and contemporary costumes (David Bowie T-shirt, etc.), looking like they were assembled from thrift shops, add a suitably irreverent visual feel to the production.
It’s possible that Moscow might have seemed far more amusing when seen in the bucolic Berkshires environs of Williamstown, but its humor merely wilts in the summer heat of the city.
Venue: The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, New York
Cast: Ako, Steven Boyer, Tavi Gevinson, Sas Goldberg, Rebecca Henderson, Greg Hildreth, Matthew Jeffers, Gene Jones, Alfredo Narciso, Chris Perfetti, Ryan Spahn, Ray Anthony Thomas
Playwright: Halley Feiffer
Director: Trip Cullman
Set designer: Mark Wendland
Costume designer: Paloma Young
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Sound designer: Darron L. West
Presented by MCC Theater, in association with Williamstown Theatre Festival
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