Although there seems to be no reason for MCC Theater’s production, now Off-Broadway, of the play Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow — crudely spun from Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters by Halley Feiffer, and directed by Trip Cullman with as much tolerance as he can flog — some excuse must exist.
And a few excuses do come to mind, but before I air them, maybe it would register as kind to cite a redeeming element or two. Two, and only two.
One: Towards the end, when youngest sister Irina agrees to marry Tuzenbach, Tavi Gevinson and Steven Boyer invest the exchange with a tender reality previously missing from this enterprise.
Two: The otherwise text-marauding Feiffer supplies an ending for the siblings that won’t be spoilerized here, but is a fadeout which theatergoers since the play’s initial performance in 1901 have wished could actually transpire.
It is to be hoped that readers of this review as well as audiences exposed to Moscow, as it will henceforth be identified here, are familiar with Chekhov’s play. Otherwise, not only will they be flummoxed by what Feiffer has done with it, they may think that this is what the good doctor Chekhov intended.
While being substantially true to the plot and the gist of the dialogue — during which the three sisters watch their lives deteriorate over four acts and four years — Feiffer, in an act of chutzpah, has stoked the language with obscenities. The frustrated women, as well as brother Andrey and others populating the household (down to the aging family retainer), spout “fuck,” “shit” and the randy like from start to finish. Masturbation and blowjobs are brought into the let’s-work-blue-for-easy-laughs scripting.
As I’m familiar with Feiffer’s previous work if not entirely sold on it, I believe she considers herself serious about her writing. I suspect there must be method to her current madness and so I will speculate for a few paragraphs.
Perhaps Feiffer thinks that were Chekhov writing today, he would express himself in the current age’s vernacular. The three sisters, family and friends, liberated in a manner not present in nascent 20th-century Russia, would undoubtedly carry on this way while the family’s lost Moscow past continued to beckon, particularly with a bona fide Moscow denizen in their anguished midst. Feiffer is happy to do Chekhov’s updating for him.
Or perhaps Feiffer is using a hyped-up Three Sisters as a metaphor for our Trump-debased society. She’s making the point that standards have fallen so gutter-low that a vulgarized treatment of Chekhov’s tragicomic piece is the best today’s theater lovers have coming to them.
Or perhaps Feiffer has simply tired of respectful Chekhov revivals, no matter how well done, and has decided to send up the whole kit and kaboodle. She’s thinking, “They want The Three Sisters, do they? I’ll give’em one they won’t forget! They want Chekhovian atmosphere again and again and again? This’ll shut ‘em up.”
Or perhaps Feiffer is going the intellectual route, entering the argument about Chekhov’s attitude toward comedy. Are his plays comedies in the sense that we know comedies? Or does Chekhov use “comedy” in a dated context? Feiffer chooses to turn The Three Sisters into an out-and-out contemporary comedy to see how audiences like it.
So those are four perhapses, perhaps. Whether any one is correct — or any combination of them, or yet other rationales — they’re not enough to render Moscow acceptable as viable theater fare.
No: wait. During the performance I attended, some ticket buyers did laugh.
At what? At, predictably, the obscenities, which are the lines that easy-mark patrons will always think amusing. One might make the mistake that Hillary Clinton made about this audience stratum and call them deplorables. No such mistake will be made here. After all, they paid their money like everyone else.
The above-mentioned Feiffer, Cullman, Gevinson and Boyer (who has yet to find a role that equals his Hand to God tour de force) are surrounded by other Moscow participants — all offered up to the ravenous god of budgetary waste. Still, they behave with the commitment that Kim Stanley, Geraldine Page, Shirley Knight, Kevin McCarthy and Luther Adler brought to the 1964 Actors Studio revival of the Chekhov play. They require concomitant gratitude.
These participants are led by Rebecca Henderson, who as dissatisfied school teacher Olga seemingly gets to swear the most. She does get to wear a Rodarte t-shirt that says “J’aime Rodarte” on the front and “Je deteste Rodarte” on the back. What a fashionista! And there is gamely cross-dressing Chris Perfetti as Masha, Alfredo Narciso as frustrated Vershinin, Greg Hildreth as the unusually sour Andrey, Sas Goldberg as earsplitting Natasha, and Ako, Matthew Jeffers, Gene Jones, Ryan Spahn and Ray Anthony Thomas. Oh, to be a fly on the wall when they talk to family and friends about their onstage obligations.
Costumer Paloma Young picked out the yours-for-$235 Rodarte item and a David Bowie and Cats t-shirt for two other players (Gevinson wears some nifty running shoes). Mark Wendland designed the wide corridor set without over-furnishing it. Ben Stanton designed the lighting, which occasionally switches to eerie colors for (are they intentional?) fantasy effects. Darron L. West takes care of the sound. They all earn their salary honestly.
Feiffer does include non-obscene contemporary catchphrases in her script. One of them is “You’re the bomb!” She has that right.