A massive wooden farm-style table dominates the set of Three Sisters in the beautiful, effectively heartbreaking new production now at Off Broadway's Classic Stage Company. Sometimes the table is used for eating and drinking; other times it's a surface for impromptu dancing. Later still, the dimensions of the tabletop signify the cramped confines of a bedroom in a house in which love is shrinking. And finally, thanks to an impressive physics demonstration involving hoists and pulleys during the second intermission, the heavy piece is stored against a back wall, a sign that conviviality no longer has a place in the home once peacefully occupied by the three Prozorov sisters and their brother.
In Chekhov's yearning masterwork, written in 1900 but eternally current, hopes and plans fall apart, soldiers take orders, and middle-class coarseness triumphs over erudite nobility. Still, everyone must go on. Under the direction of Austin Pendleton and in the graceful hands of a harmoniously matched, eye-catching cast (a cast spiced with a dash of movie-star interest), they go on with a youthful vigor that makes the sisters' many disappointments that much more poignant. Jessica Hecht (Sideways) brings sad-eyed gentleness to the role of oldest sister Olga, the unmarried schoolteacher; Juliet Rylance deepens the dreamy optimism of Irina, the youngest sister, pining to return to Moscow, where the family once lived in finer times and where she's sure she'll find true love. (Ebon Moss-Bachrach is splendid as the gracious, well-mannered Baron Tuzenbach, Irina's suitor who knows his affections are not returned.) Josh Hamilton finds the right degree of weakness in Andrey, the sisters' beloved brother a man, it turns out, without a spine.
As for that movie-star glam, Maggie Gyllenhaal makes a vividly interesting Masha, the intellectual, artistic middle sister, who is already enduring disappointment as the play begins: She has little outlet for her musical gifts and she's married to the sycophantic schoolteacher Kulygin (Paul Lazar), whom she once hoped would provide her with mental stimulation. Now she realizes he's a pompous pedant. Adding to her misery (and adding to the movie-star quotient), Masha is hopelessly in love with Peter Sarsgaard (Gyllenhaal's real-life husband) as Vershinin, the lieutenant colonel in charge of a battery of soldiers who are billeted in town. Vershinin is married and the father of two little girls; he's also very much in love with Masha. The warmth between the two is charged once by the enticing marital casting, and twice by Sarsgaard's own striking youthfulness, which gives the character an officer in command, a philosopher a fresh twist.
I save for last the work of Marin Ireland in the role of Andrey's wife, Natasha. The sister-in-law represents the psychological pivot on which Three Sisters turns and Ireland, a casually magnetic stage actor, finds astonishing ways of making Natasha as understandable (and modern) as she is breathtakingly insensitive, often with just a flap of her hands. Ireland is a master gesturer. An insecure girly-girl with no family and dubious decorative taste when first introduced as Andrey's sweetheart, Natasha morphs into an insidious, self-involved force who grasps at all that's most dully, showily bourgeois once she's a wife and mother. Indeed, after squelching any fun and entertainment her sisters might have found for themselves among the soldiers stationed in town, she more or less runs her sisters-in-law out of their own house. She bans the old ways of upper-class graciousness. She is, Chekhov might be saying, the dreadful, antielitist future.
Ireland takes care to remind us that Natasha is just a wife and mother like any number ordering skim lattes at any Starbucks. She's got energy, she's got a to-do list, she dotes fiercely on her children, she hates clutter, and, by the way, she cheats on her husband. She is also, indubitably, Anton Chekhov's creation. With an assist from the active, colloquial script translation by Paul Schmidt, this burnished Russian classic glows with modern energy and finesse. A
(Tickets: Ovationtix.com or 866-811-4111)