Exactly how you feel about Halley Feiffer’s Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow will probably depend on a couple of things: 1) Your familiarity with and/or affection for a dead Russian playwright called Anton Chekhov. 2) Your tolerance and/or affection for hip, hyper, slangy irony — for winky postmodernism slathered on like tanning oil at a Jersey beach. Moscow Moscow (et cetera) is billed as an adaptation of Three Sisters—the only play among his big four that Chekhov allowed himself to call “A Drama” rather than “A Comedy”—and in this case, adaptation just means paraphrase. Feiffer walks through Chekhov’s story of four frustrated siblings living and longing in the stultifying Russian countryside with what becomes, for all her play’s aggressive pop and fizz, an almost plodding adherence to each incident of the source material. What she does with those incidents is simply to translate them into meme speak, into an eye-rolling, shit-taking, too-cool-for-school contemporary banter, where enthusiasm exists to be undermined and despair—at least of the slouchy “Ugh, the world is a garbage fire I might as well try the new Tie-Dye Frappuccino” variety—lurks under the surface from the get-go.
The results of strapping Three Sisters down for this particular makeover are varied. On the one hand, the incessant blasé cattiness of Feiffer’s diction grinds on the ear and the soul, irrevocably shrinking the original play’s world and its concerns. It’s not meant to be, but Moscow Moscow often feels heartless. On the other hand, especially for its supporting characters, Feiffer’s play ultimately becomes a kind of productive acting exercise. It gives its cast the freedom to be sloppy, to shake off restrictive tropes—presumptions about period, decorum, or status—and instead to bite straight into these juicy parts and draw fresh blood. When, at the moment that marks the close of Act 1 in Chekhov’s four-act play (Feiffer’s is a tight 95 minutes), Andrey (Greg Hildreth) and his crush Natasha (Sas Goldberg) finger-bang and then fuck awkwardly on a piano instead of demurely kissing, it’s not so much shocking as spiritually accurate. Corsets and samovars aside, that’s the essence of what these two humiliated, horny young misfits want to do to each other. Or take the excruciating extent to which Ray Anthony Thomas leans into the drunken binges of the lonely, loving, increasingly nihilistic old doctor, Chebutykin. These extremes aren’t the invention of a present-day playwright — they’re an excavation of the emotional truth of Chekhov, which is infinitely broader and more dynamic than we tend to give it credit for on American stages. The pleasure of Feiffer’s play is that it sows the seeds for such moments of gross, gutsy release.
But it also undercuts itself. And though it’s meant to be a feature, the play’s thick coating of irony, the constant curl of its lip and slant of its eyebrow, is a bug. “Does everyone think I have a golden PUSSY or something?!” screeches Irina, the much-pursued youngest sister (Tavi Gevinson), when the weird, combative but sensitive Solyony (Matthew Jeffers) professes his love to her. “I’m talking to both of you, even though I am facing this window with a wistful expression on my face,” oldest sister Olga (Rebecca Henderson) chatters casually to her siblings as the play begins. When moody middle sister Masha (Chris Perfetti, doing an enjoyably fitful cross-gender turn in the role) stops to consider why she has to go to a boring work function with her doting, officious husband (Ryan Spahn), she stares into space and muses upspeak-ily, “Because that’s — what life is, I think? Just… doing horrible things? And complaining about them?” And when Tuzenbach (Steven Boyer), king of the friend zone, is asked what he’s doing as he cavorts with a bottle of vodka, he yelps dramatically, “Singing in an effort to stave off existential despair, queen!”
All these moments are laugh lines, and Feiffer gets what she’s after — at the characters’ and the play’s expense. It’s not hard to poke holes in aging theatrical conventions, or to spray the subtext garishly across the walls like graffiti. But then what’s left underneath? All Chekhov’s great plays run the deadly risk, especially in American productions, of becoming privileged whine-fests. Plays of rich people problems. At their cores they aren’t that, but there are plenty of times that Moscow Moscow is, and is content to be because it’s landing jokes. It’s no surprise that in some of the play’s most truly emotionally exposed scenes—Solyony’s dangerous confession of love to Irina, or Irina and Tuzenbach’s 11-o’clock confrontation before he goes off, broken-hearted, to fight a duel over her—Feiffer falters. She can’t power these scenes on the engine she’s chosen—an engine of teenagerish snark and phrases like “douche-ma-gouche” and “oh-em-jizzmagnet”—and so she hurries through them, sidestepping the story’s gut punches instead of connecting with them.
Meanwhile, as Director Trip Cullman drives into Feiffer’s stage direction to keep the dialogue “fast-paced, frenetic,” the relentless speed becomes a way of avoiding an empty center. And while it may seem harsh to lay that vacancy at a single actor’s door, Gevinson’s Irina is the source of much of the production’s dispiriting flatness. To be fair, she’s playing exactly what Feiffer has written for her to play: a pouty princess in a rainbow-sparkle unicorn horn. But Irina is the secret soul of Three Sisters — there’s a reason everyone’s in love with her. Flawless she ain’t. Spoiled, maybe. But without her vital spark, her drive, her earnest desire to make life mean something, the play loses its backbone and its much of its heartbreak.
In Moscow Moscow, the supporting cast find much more humanity than the title trio does. Goldberg movingly accesses Natasha’s frantic feelings of shame, her ambition, and her hunger for her husband’s attention before morphing into the tyrannical usurper of the Prozorov girls’ nightmares. Spahn, playing the schoolteacher Kulygin as a nerd in a Cats hoodie, discovers moments of real pathos, as do Boyer’s long-suffering Tuzenbach and Thomas’s broken-down Chebutykin. And as Vershinin—the sexy, in-love-with-his-own-sadness silver fox who steals Masha’s heart—Alfredo Narciso finds a way to walk the line between commentary and character. He’s the self-dramatizing type, and because he commits fully to his own drama, the play slows down when he enters, breathing in a way that brings the thrill of life, of not quite knowing what will happen next, back to the room.
It’s that breath that’s so often missing in Moscow Moscow. Feiffer leaves her characters, especially the titular sisters, no real room for innocence, for sincerity, for the kind of desperate, real uncertainty and incurable yearning that make their struggle, no matter their flaws or their sense of entitlement, not only worth watching but, finally, both devastating and strangely exhilarating. The echoing final line of Chekhov’s play, often translated “If only we knew,” has no place in Feiffer’s universe. Here, everyone knows all the time. Hipster apathy threatens to strangle the life out of us all. “Hush, little baby, don’t you cry… Actually, cry because life is terrible,” croons Andrey to his baby daughter near the play’s end. Funny? Perhaps — briefly. But not deeply. In Moscow Moscow, the playwright and her characters sit in judgment more than they toil in search of something. They make quippy statements about their reality instead of asking questions of it.
Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow is at MCC Theater through August 3.