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Theatre in Review: Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow (MCC Theater)

Tavi Gevinson. Photo: Joan Marcus

Everybody seems to have it in for Anton Chekhov these days, with playwrights and directors doing their damnedest to drag the great Russian playwright into the twenty-first century. Whether such efforts are meant as homage or vandalism is often hard to say. The most strenuous of these updaters is Halley Feiffer: In her new play, a version of Three Sisters, she declares her approach without further ado. Olga, checking out her youngest sibling, says, "You look dope as hell today, Irina. You're wearing a cute white dress and you look just sick." Baron Tuzenbach, part of the sisters' entourage, is heard offstage, saying, "I literally just told you to go fuck yourself. Not entirely sure why) that's so hard for you to understand." Entering, he says, "Heyyyy, bitches." Olga, the spinster sister, launches into an aria of self-hatred: "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." This is only the overture: The entire speech, which runs to about fifteen lines, features eleven repetitions of "shit." No wonder that Tuzenbach notes, "The Russian countryside blows."

We're just getting started. Tuzenbach, who unrequitedly loves Irina, is presented as a closet case. Urging himself on her, nevertheless, he says, "I'll take care of you." Unimpressed, she replies, "Way to smash the patriarchy-not." Chebutykin, the alcoholic doctor, checking out Kulygin, husband of Masha, says, "You never should have shaved off your mustache, Fyodor. You look like a plate of diarrhea." As is de rigueur with such postmodern approaches, everyone is aware that they are characters in a play: Whenever anyone indulges in a nineteenth-century playwright's taste for lengthy exposition, someone snaps, "Why are you telling me this?" When Natasha, the vulgar in-law, cries out, "You have treated me like shit since the day I got here and all I've ever done is try to be nice to you," Olga replies, "Natasha, I haven't seen you since Act One." And if you think the impulse to work a whoopee cushion has been resisted, you're living in a dream world; for good measure, essentially the same gag is repeated twice, with a child's squeak toy.

As you may imagine, such an approach is best enjoyed in microdoses; what might make for an amusing sketch at ten minutes makes for pretty heavy weather at ninety-five. The difficulty with a text built on a foundation of endless sophomoric invective is that, before long, one begins to note the sheer poverty of the language employed; I have no actual figures, but I feel sure that a textual analysis would confirm that the three most-used words in the text are "fuck," "shit," and "whore." (Equally popular is the ever-misused "literally;" for example, in yet another fit of pique, Irina says of the aged Anfisa, "I literally can't think of one thing that would make her a less good servant.") Screaming is permitted, if not actively encouraged, and every so often the characters break into gales of harsh, metallic laughter, to nails-on-a-blackboard effect. Because Feiffer more or less sticks to the plot of Three Sisters, the effect is of watching the play while listening simultaneously to a cutting running commentary on it; this might have been fun if the criticism were more mordant or, at least, much more amusing. It is entirely possible that most Chekhov productions in this country opt for a default wistfulness that may not be entirely what the author intended, but the nonstop display of attitude on offer here is no easier to take; watching Moscow Moscow Moscow is rather like being locked in with a houseful of sullen teenagers.

This may not be the optimal moment to have produced Moscow Moscow Moscow in New York, while Life Sucks, Aaron Posner's far more inventive and emotionally dexterous contemporizing of Uncle Vanya, is currently running. Posner manages the not-inconsiderable trick of spoofing some of Vanya;'s more old-fashioned aspects while honoring its emotional core; his ability to create a kind of cat's cradle of hilarity and sorrow is, in its way, an act of tribute. Best of all, he doesn't rely on scatological language for easy laughs. But Feiffer is nothing if not a provocateur-- what else would you expect from the author of How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City? -- and if she is fed up with the presentation of women in Chekhov's plays, or what she sees as a lack of humor in Chekhov productions, or whatever, she is certainly entitled to her opinion. But it would be nice if she didn't mistake blatant vulgarity for wit.

Because she has a first-class director in Trip Cullman and a top-shelf company of actors, the production does provide fleeting moments of pleasure. Chris Perfetti, in the production's only drag role, has the makings of a fine Masha: Willowy yet tense in a black unitard and matching flowing skirt, he pirouettes around the stage, striking elaborately unhappy poses. He partners beautifully with Alfredo Narciso, dashing and deadpan with his matinee idol looks, as Vershinin, Masha's married lover; almost alone among the company, Narciso seems to understand that by playing his role straight, with a carefully applied extra ten percent of intensity, he can effectively satirize his character's romantic pretensions. Ryan Spahn achieves something similar with Kulygin, Masha's cheerful, hapless husband; with only a slight modulation, it could fit into almost any standard production of Three Sisters. The most original characterization is offered by Matthew Jeffers as the socially awkward soldier Solyony, here presented as the kind of misfit who might turn violent at any moment, and whose problems may be rooted in internalized homophobia.

Otherwise, Steven Boyer and Tavi Gevinson offer largely one-note performances as Tuzenbach and Irina, at least until late when they are finally allowed to play a scene for real emotion. Rebecca Henderson's Olga is hampered by some of Feiffer's most grievous overwriting (see the speech above). Greg Hildreth is a bit drab as Andrey, the feckless brother, except for the bit when he ravishes his girlfriend, Natasha (Sas Goldberg, amusing at first but growing increasingly shrill), throwing her up against the piano and taking her from behind. In smaller roles, Anthony Thomas is suitably dissipated as Chebutykin and Gene Jones dithers effectively as the deaf, elderly retainer Ferapont. Ako makes the most of her few appearances as the increasingly frail Anfisa, most notably an eerie apprearance in a wheelchair laden with a hefty samovar.

Oddly, Mark Wendland's set design, which suggests the layout of a rehearsal room with stray pieces of furniture pulled together to create a ground plan for Three Sisters, is, in some ways, like Brittany Vasta's set for Life Sucks; inventive touches include a cathedral ceiling and a red-white-and-blue portrait of Moscow, with the city's name spelled out in Cyrillic. Ben Stanton's lighting is a fairly straightforward job, punctuated by saturated purple for the above sex scene, a red flame effect to suggest an offstage fire, and a brief switch to a harsh white fluorescent look for reasons that remain unclear. Paloma Young's costumes include some wicked touches, including the hoodie, featuring the logo for the musical Cats, worn by Kulygin. Natasha has an eye-poppingly tasteless series of ensembles; don't miss the breast pump she sports after giving birth. Darron L West's sound design includes hip-hop music, a crying baby, sirens, a chorus of soldiers, and swelling musical chords whenever the magic word ("Moscow") is uttered.

Cullman does good work trying to unite the sensibilities of past and present, but the results are inconsistent at best, because his allegiance is to Feiffer and her steamroller approach. Watching Moscow Moscow Moscow, one wonders what about Three Sisters engaged the playwright's attention. In any case, putting her name next to Chekhov's can only result in unflattering comparisons. Literally. -- David Barbour

(19 July 2019)

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