Photo by Joan Marcus
NEW YORK – The small Classic Stage Company (CSC) at 136 E. 13th St., between Third and Fourth Avenues, is presenting an exceptional production of Anton Chekhov’s "The Three Sisters," a classic drama that requires a team of virtuoso actors.
Director Austin Pendleton has assembled a superior company, harnessed its casts’ individual skills and created an admirable rendition of this play, written in 1901. Two years ago, Mr. Pendleton was less successful with a CSC staging of Chekhov’s "Uncle Vanya." This time out, almost everything is perfection.
Maggie Gyllenhaal, the film actress who received an Oscar nomination last year for "Crazy Heart," plays the troubled and turbulent sister Marsha; Jessica Hecht is the kind and gentle sister Olga; and newcomer Juliet Rylance is the youngest sister, the vulnerable Irina. All work harmoniously in Chekhov’s tapestried drama, one of the four masterpieces he wrote just before his life ended, at age 44, in l904.
"The Three Sisters" is a quiet play, like a gentle piece of music: most of its characters are educated, well-bred and thoughtful. Though the play is often amusing and at times even raucous, it, like most of Chekhov’s work, is not about happy people and it ends sadly. All three sisters want desperately to leave their provincial life and to return to Moscow, yet in the play’s final scene, their hopes are probably dead forever and their future prospects bleak.
The sisters’ closest friends, the officers in the brigade that has been stationed in their small town, have left for Poland. They included Vershinin (Peter Sarsgaard), whom Marsha has fallen in love with, and the Baron Tuzenbach (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), an officer in the army, who was to have married Irina but is killed in a duel.
The sisters’ brother Andrey (Josh Hamilton), who was expected to be a great scholar, has lost all of the family’s money gambling and is married to a shrewish, managing woman, Natasha (Marin Ireland), who has turned the sisters’ house into a wretched place. The performance by Ms. Ireland, usually an excellent actress, is the one false note in the production. This is mainly because Paul Schmidt’s otherwise admirable translation gives Ms. Ireland some of the most blatantly contemporary lines, and they seem to be out of kilter with the language of the rest of the play.
Chekhov’s play is ultimately about the sisters’ giving up their dream of returning to Moscow. Chekhov works up slowly to this climactic moment, and Mr. Pendleton has sensitively guided the actors in preparation for it. In a deserted garden next to their home, the three sisters stand alone, their hopes gone forever. They can weep, and do weep; they console one another for they love and understand one another. Olga, the oldest and strongest, is able to fight down her own grief and comforts Marsha and Irina. Ms. Hecht, Ms. Gyllenhaal and Ms. Rylance make every moment of this scene meaningfully poignant – the grief, courage and love of these women who come from another time, another age that has passed.
In supporting roles, Roberta Maxwell is touching as the servant Anfisa, and Louis Zorich is fine as the elderly army doctor.
The production is wise and beautiful and often touches on the magnificent. It is scheduled to play at the CSC through March 6.
NEW YORK – The plays of the Irish playwright Brian Friel have been entertaining American audiences since 1966, when his "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" surprisingly became a Broadway hit. Since then, Mr. Friel has enjoyed much success in this country.
The Irish Repertory Company at 132 W. 22nd St., between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, has frequently presented Mr. Friel’s work ("Philadelphia, Here I Come!" twice). Through March 13, it is reviving his 1996 play, "Molly Sweeney." Like "The Faith Healer" from 1979 (staged on Broadway in 2006), "Molly Sweeney" consists of interweaving monologues that center around three characters: Molly Sweeney (Geraldine Hughes), a 40-year-old woman who has been blind since she was 10 months old; Mr. Rice (Jonathan Hogan), a divorced, alcoholic doctor who hopes to restore his failing career by restoring Molly’s sight; and Molly’s husband Frank (Ciaran O’Reilly), who has dedicated his life to having his wife see again.
We get to hear all three characters’ stories individually. Molly has the operation and it turns out to be a success. At first, she is exultant, but after a few months, sight becomes problematic. She probably would have been better off not having her sight restored; seeing becomes more of a hindrance than an advantage for Molly.
The play, originally scheduled to run through March 13, will be extended through April 10, the theater announced last week.
Irish actress Simone Kirby, who recently performed the role in a revival at the Curve Theater in Leicester, England, will play the role of Molly beginning March 9.
Ms. Hughes was unable to stay with the extended production because of a prior commitment to join another cast.
"Molly Sweeney," as a triptych of monologues, can be a little static from a theatrical point of view, especially for audiences who are used to having their plays full of dialogue and conflict. Director Charlotte Moore does everything she can to keep the proceedings moving along, and the actors’ expert recitation of Mr. Friel’s lilting language washes over the audience in a mesmerizing way. Yet, for all its charm and the touching story it tells, as dramatic fare, "Molly Sweeney" is a little wan; it is like listening to a Brian Friel story in a theatrical setting.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.