If acting miserable together on stage is good for a relationship, Anton Chekhov may be the best thing that’s happened to Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard.
In 2009, the Brooklyn power couple collaborated on a vapid “Uncle Vanya.” Now they’re back in Russian mode and getting gloomy in the author’s “Three Sisters.”
Same troupe: Classic Stage Company. Same director: Austin Pendleton. Different experience. Despite some missteps, this “Sisters” is mostly sturdy and satisfying.
Of course, satisfaction is hard to come by in Chekhov. This 1901 story of dashed dreams is no exception.
The story follows the title characters, Masha (Gyllenhaal), Olga (Jessica Hecht) and Irina (Juliet Rylance), who desperately want out of the small town where they’ve lived for 11 years and to return to Moscow. Good luck with that.
An enormous rectangular wooden table, practically the size of an Olympic swimming pool, dominates Walt Spangler’s set, which Keith Parham lights with mood-swinging brilliance.
It’s an excellent scenic choice since every character is starving — emotionally speaking. That this table appears laid with linen and china in Act I, is stripped bare in Act II, and gets upended and leaned against a back wall in Act IV deftly underscores the inevitable: All go away hungry — no love or happiness on the menu here.
A key to “Three Sisters” is maintaining the integrity of the playwright’s world.
Pendleton’s production, including Marco Piemontese’s fine costumes, respect the early 1900s, but Paul Schmidt’s translation throws in colloquialisms (“weird,” “dumpy,” “Andy”) that are jarringly contemporary.
The same goes for Marin Ireland’s cartoony take on Natasha, who marries the sisters’ useless brother, Andrey (Josh Hamilton) and destroys everyone’s lives. Is the thoroughly modern Mean Girl her choice or the director’s? Either way, the character is in a different play.
Fortunately, the rest of the cast is on the same page. Hecht brings grace and poignance as Olga, the old-maid teacher. Rylance uses her wide eyes and plummy voice to great effect as headstrong Irina, whose Back to Moscow! crusade goes nowhere.
As Vershinin, the soldier Masha falls madly for, Sarsgaard looks dashing and in fighting trim. With his adenoidal twang, it’s unlikely Masha would say, “I love his voice.” But his strong performance makes up for his nasal honks.
Gyllenhaal is miles away from her static “Vanya” turn. Her unhappily married Masha emerges a vivid mix of wry and bitter. In a canny move, she often punctuates lines with a cynical little laugh. Better than anyone, Masha gets the joke that life must go on.