Tuesday, July 30, 2019

50 (2019-2020): Review: MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW (seen July 29, 2019)

"Three Sisters Three Sisters Three Sisters Three Sisters Three Sisters Three Sisters"

Something there is in the major plays of- turn-of-the-20th-century Russian playwright Anton Chekhov that has driven a number of later writers to radically revise them for their times. Sometimes this done by shifting the action to other eras and places, sometimes by simply (or not so simply) rewriting them, even radically, in contemporary terms.
Rebecca Henderson, Tavi Gevinson, Chris Perfetti. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The latter is what the talented Halley Feiffer (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City) has done in her off-the-mark crack at Three Sisters, Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow (she does like her weird titles).  The play was produced in 2017 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival before arriving in New York New York New York New York New York New York. 
Tavi Gevinson, Rebecca Henderson, Chris Perfetti. Photo: Joan Marcus.
One of the earliest Chekhov transformations by an American playwright is Joshua Logan’s 1950 The Wisteria Trees, which considers The Cherry Orchard as happening on a late 19th-century Louisiana plantation. So many other unusual Chekhov variations followed, it would take pages to list them. 
Gene Jones, Greg Hildreth. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Just to cite those I recall being shown in mainstream New York theatres during the past several years, there was a 2013 revival of British dramatist Thomas Kilroy’s 1981 version of The Seagull, relocated to West Ireland; the same year’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang’s hilarious take on Uncle Vanya; Songbird, a 2015 musical adaptation of The Seagull set in a honkytonk bar; Aaron Posner’s 2016 Stupid Fucking Bird, a reincarnation of The Seagull; and this year’s Life Sucks, Posner’s still-running, well-regarded update of Uncle Vanya (which I missed). There have also been several modern-dress, if somewhat less-revisionist, Chekhov productions during the past half-dozen years. 
Ryan Spahn, Tavi Gevinson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Speaking of Moscow . . . , whose full title forces my spellcheck to lose its mind, Feiffer suggests in a New York Times interview that one motivation for her play, is how closely Three Sisters’ characters closely resemble many of the people around her. “Nothing has really changed.”
Alfredo Narcisco, Chris Perfetti. Photo: Joan Marcus.
So, rather than let Chekhov’s original (whatever that is) reflect those similarities, she’s been inspired to write her own play, placing a select number of Three Sisters characters inside a mashup of Chekhovian and contemporary Russia. The result is over-the-top farcical zaniness, cartoonish behavior, oodles of profanity, simulated sex, frequent repetitions (like Trigorin’s references to his wife and children, or Kulygin’s to his teaching Latin), and unexpected plot twists (like Tuzenbach's [Steven Boyar] confession to Irina that he’s gay).
Steven Boyar, Matthew Jeffers. Photo: Joan Marcus.
There’s also a deliberately diverse cast, mingling white, black, Asian, and Latinx actors, not to mention having a little person as Solyony (Matthew Jeffers), and a wigless, crossdressing man play Masha (Chris Perfetti). The goal, not too dissimilar from the above-mentioned approach to Chekhov’s subtext, is intended “to illustrate how universal this story is,” as if the story itself can’t be trusted to do that on its own. 
Company of Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow. Photo: Joan Marcus.
This MCC production is placed on Mark Wendland’s sparsely furnished platform, alley-style, between bleachers on either side, with a backdrop at one end showing a painting of Moscow over which hangs the word “Moscow” in its Russian spelling. Overhead is a partial roof of plywood, within which hang Christmas-style lights (Ben Stanton is the lighting designer).
Rebecca Henderson, Chris Perfetti, Tavi Gevinson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Paloma Young’s costumes, with their selective mix of “period” and current fashions (like giving pink stilettos to Natasha [Sas Goldberg] and a long, brass-buttoned, military coat to Trigorin [Alfredo Narcisco]), create what looks more like a rehearsal than a fully produced performance. The same blend of old and new, Russian and American, is conveyed in Darren L. West’s sound score.
Company of Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Feiffer highlights the characters’ loneliness, pain, and unhappiness, about which they are always lamenting, by a variety of hopefully humorous techniques, in which she’s aided and abetted by director Trip Cullman. Much of the humor is uncomfortably sophomoric, though, like when someone sits on a whoopee cushion. There's nothing sloppy, though, about the performance. Everything is staged with pinpoint timing, choral outbursts, outright stylization, and rhythmic precision. Neverthless, much is loud and obvious, while little is honestly human and emotionally affecting. Many in the rather youthful audience laughed; I cringed.
Greg Hildreth, Sas Goldberg. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Feiffer, who sticks close to the original plot, notes that she “brought a lot of the subtext to the forefront in an effort to heighten the pathos and catharsis with the storytelling.” This implies that Chekhov’s ability to create “pathos and catharsis” with his subtext is somehow faulty and needs an overhaul.  For me, the effect, over 95 intermissionless minutes, was comparable to an SNL sketch exceeding its welcome by 90 minutes before the sisters march off to Moscow.

If you don’t know Three Sisters, whose plot I’ve deliberately omitted, you’ll likely find Moscow . . . meaningless. It’s the kind of thing only those familiar—even superficially—with the original could love or hate, not so much for its innate qualities, but for what it illuminates about its source. If you’re planning to see Feiffer, read Chekhov first.

All the actors, including Rebecca Henderson as Olga, Tavi Gevinson as Irina, Ako as Anfisa, Greg Hildreth as Andrey, and Gene Jones as Ferapont, give it their best shot, doing high-quality work with low-quality material.
Rebecca Henderson, Ako. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Feiffer says Three Sisters became the titular six Moscows when she was considering using only five. A friend advised her to use six because “Six is more annoying.” As predicted, Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow's title is annoying, and not just its title.

The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space,
511 W. 52nd St., NYC
Through August 17