Moscow on the Hudson: Three Sisters at Classical Theatre of Harlem

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Photo Credit: Troy Hourie

Chekhov’s most famous remark about the theater was the one about the gunshots: “If you hang a pistol on the wall in the first act, then it should be fired in the following act. Otherwise don’t put it there.” He said this around 1889, just after he had Ivanov shoot himself onstage. In the next few years, he applied this rule with a progressively lighter touch: the suicide in The Seagull occurs offstage; the shots in Uncle Vanya are all misfires. In The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov gleefully violates his rule altogether: Yepikhodov flaunts a pistol that he always carries (in case he decides to answer Hamlet’s conundrum, “Not to be”) but we never see the gun again.

Perhaps the most beautiful gunshot in Chekhov occurs in Three Sisters, where “a muffled shot is heard in the distance.” “Muffled”, “In the distance”: these could serve as stage directions for the entire play. In the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s uneven production (through March 8, Christopher McElroen dir.), that gunshot ― and a few other things ― are a bit too loud.

Besides Ivanov, Three Sisters is the only major play that Chekhov called a “drama.” Quite enough happens over the time it depicts to justify the designation: there’s a wedding, one proposal and at least one affair; two births and a suicide attempt; the takeover of an estate by a vulgar interloper; job promotions, resignations and career changes; a catastrophic gambling loss; a “slight” and a resulting duel; an entire military battalion marches out of town; that entire town nearly burns to the ground. But all of this occurs either offstage or between acts. (“… muffled … in the distance.”) The play’s main events are ones that never occur: Olga, Masha, Irina (the “three sisters”) and their brother Andrey, stuck in a provincial town since their late father was stationed there, don’t leave and return to Moscow. Nor do they leave their loveless marriages; nor do they leave their uninspiring jobs. The play explores the psychic consequences of this inaction, but always en passant.

Many of the players in this production either don’t trust their ability to communicate this subtlety or the audience’s ability to catch it. (The latter assumption is never justified.) The ones that do trust themselves and their audience demonstrate how great a production this might have been ― and may, with minor adjustments, still be.

The best performances of the evening were Reg E. Cathey’s Chebutykin and Joshua Tyson’s Tuzenbach. Chebutykin is reticent while everyone around him endlessly philosophizes, and Cathey fills the spaces between his lines with a magnificent laugh. (No sighing; no eye rolling.) And just as every singer of the National Anthem is judged by their “land of the free,” so every performer of Tuzenbach is judged by that heart-breaking request for coffee. As it should be, no summary can contain everything Tyson puts into the line.

Of the three sisters, the best was Olga as played by Sabrina Le Beauf, who captures both the enervating effects of a lifetime spent teaching and the resentments of a spinster who sees her married sister become infatuated with another man. That sister is Masha, played by Amanda Mason Warren. Masha’s husband is a dim but pedantic high school teacher, so she’s easy prey for a crisp military man like Vershinin. (Though it’s extremely difficult to understand how she could fall for Vershinin as played by Roger Guenveur Smith. The accent he put on was impossible to place and harder to listen to; we would have preferred listening to him reprise Smiley from Do the Right Thing and just stutter through the whole play.) Masha is central to Three Sisters; that Warren’s slightly off-key performance was so disruptive indicates just how fragile a thing this play is. She didn’t respond to Le Beauf’s queues and explore the complexity of Masha and Olga’s relationship, and she and Smith didn’t trust that the inappropriateness of their dialogue said everything that needed to be said. Actually kissing in the early acts is too easy, not subtle enough.

Daphne Gaines’ Natasha isn’t simply “unsubtle.” Primping and flaunting when she should be coy, psychopathic when she should be callous: it’s a buffoonish caricature. Billy Eugene Jones plays Andrey, husband to this cruel and vulgar woman. Jones communicates Andrey’s nervousness ― he always seems on the verge of biting his fingernails ― but everything is drowned out by his bombastic delivery. (Here’s an impromptu Flavorwire poll: Why do you think actors insist on shouting?) Happily, the couple is often off-stage, particularly in the second half.

We may seem to suggest, here and elsewhere, that complete fidelity is the only legitimate approach to a classic text. Of course it isn’t. (The New York production we’d most liked to have seen is Orson Welles’ voodoo Macbeth.) But this production is an attempt at fidelity, just one that’s slightly wide of its mark. McElroen and company should have listened more carefully to that muffled shot.