THEATER REVIEW: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard and Josh Hamilton Offer Moving Performances in 'Three Sisters'

Joan Marcus
Penetrating characterizations and a seamlessly knit ensemble breathe rich emotional life into Chekhov’s play.

Anton Chekhov's play runs through March 6 at NYC’s Classic Stage Company.

NEW YORK -- The first thing the audience sees upon entering the Classic Stage Company for Three Sisters is a massive dining table that seems to fill the theater, laid with crisp linens, sparkling crystal ware and sprays of flowers -- the very picture of convivial rustic gentility. But when family and guests pose behind it for a portrait, their dour expressions tell another story.

That bridge between complacent privilege and encroaching unhappiness is of course intrinsic to Chekhov, captured in fine-grained, cumulative detail in Austin Pendleton’s affecting production. As these characters wait, mostly in vain, for the futures they envisioned to take shape, the sense of slow suffocation hangs languidly in the turn-of-the-century Russian air.

CSC’s recent track record with Chekhov has been uneven, and Pendleton’s last directing assignment at this address was a mannered Uncle Vanya, whose starry cast also featured Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard. But while that distancing staging confused melancholy with manic, this one achieves graceful fluidity in its characters’ struggle against time. There’s bracing clarity to its transitions from hope to rankling disillusionment to pained resignation. That none of those states ever satisfies or extinguishes the characters’ gnawing hunger for meaning in existence is the play’s tragedy.

While Paul Schmidt’s translation has a spare, modern flavor, the cast mixes contemporary and classical delivery to audacious effect. Their conversational ease lends urgency to a play essentially about stasis and isolation. And Pendleton’s cinematic embrace of overlapping dialogue and action – it’s almost like an Altman movie at times – imparts a real feeling of people alone in a crowd.

Chafing at small-town provincial life and itching to return to the Moscow of their youth, the three Prozorov sisters are alike in their frustrations, yet radically different in their driving forces. Over-educated and under-skilled for the modern world, they are given exquisite life and loving bonds by Gyllenhaal, Jessica Hecht and Juliet Rylance.

While Olga, the eldest, has spinsterhood tattooed on her from the start, and an aversion to teaching manifested in constant headaches, Hecht makes her direct path to the sad reconcilement of a headmistress’s life no less heartrending. As Irina, Rylance appears to be looking on helplessly as the radiance ebbs from her, keeping thoughts of love on hold for Moscow and too intransigent to rethink those plans in time to make a difference.

Gyllenhaal’s Masha spends much of the play in prickly aloofness. She makes no secret of her boredom with Kulygin (Paul Lazar), the dull schoolteacher she married in a moment of impressionable youth. Even in the semi-escape of her affair with married military officer Vershinin (Sarsgaard), she remains somewhat guarded, crumpling into devastation only at the end when the regiment moves on.

Sarsgaard’s performance is a little hampered by his sleepy monotone. (A terrific screen actor, he tends onstage to become John Malkovich.) However, his air of detachment effectively telegraphs that while his idealism enchants Masha from their first meeting, his cool-headed pragmatism will let her down.

The other men circling the sisters make nuanced impressions. As Irina’s rival suitors, Ebon Moss-Bachrach is touching as the aristocrat who joins the army to fulfill her romantic notions of work and purpose, and Anson Mount’s impassioned awkwardness is equally moving. A lucky-charm actor who pops up regularly in Jonathan Demme’s movies, Lazar balances dweeby humor with an odd dignity as Masha’s accepting husband.

Chekhov’s title notwithstanding, this production makes the sorrowful awakening of the Prozorovs’ brother resonate with the same sting as his sisters’ outcomes. As Josh Hamilton’s Andrey renounces the life of an intellectual for that of a petty local bureaucrat, he finds it increasingly hard to make excuses for the insensitivity of his parvenu of a wife, Natasha (Marin Ireland).

Stomping around the dacha, masking her insecurities with entitlement, Ireland’s performance risks the boldest detours out of period, but she makes it work.

There are lovely moments from Chekhov veterans Roberta Maxwell, Louis Zorich and George Morfogen, as well as design contributions that tame the challenging CSC space better than any production there in recent memory, making it both more open and more intimate. This lucid interpretation rewards with its deep understanding of a complex play.

Venue: Classic Stage Company, New York (Through March 6)
Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Josh Hamilton, Jessica Hecht, Marin Ireland, Juliet Rylance, Peter Sarsgaard, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Anson Mount, Roberta Maxwell, Louis Zorich, George Morfogen, Paul Lazar, Gabe Bettio, James Patrick Nelson
Director: Austin Pendleton
Playwright: Anton Chekhov
Set designer: Walt Spangler
Costume designer: Marco Piemontese
Lighting designer: Keith Parham
Music/sound designers: Christian Frederickson, Ryan Rummery
Presented by Classic Stage Company