Halley Feiffer’s new comedy, the obsessively titled Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow, is an intermittently funny ten-minute parody of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Unfortunately, it goes on for another hour and twenty-five minutes, tiresomely recycling jokes and shallow insights until you begin to wonder if Feiffer actually read the Russian playwright’s work or just a Wikipedia synopsis for her cooler-than-thou “adaptation,” which seems motivated by a strange desire to ridicule not only Chekhov’s characters but also anyone who might feel bad for them. So, be forewarned, if you have an ounce of sentimentality in your soul, it may seem as if the laughter heard during the production (and, to be fair, there was a lot of it) is to some extent directed at you.
Confusing snark for wit, Feiffer dedicates the bulk of her energies to mocking the disappointments and shortcomings of all involved, especially those three troubled sisters Olga (Rebecca Henderson), Irina (Tavi Gevinson), and Masha (a gender nonconforming Chris Perfetti), who, along with their over-educated/under-employed brother Andrey (Greg Hildreth), desperately long to leave their dreary provincial estate for the glitz and glamour of Moscow. But, for varying reasons, they are trapped: Masha by a loveless marriage to the kindly Kulygin (Ryan Spahn); Andrey by a soon-to-be-loveless marriage to the class-masquerading Natasha (Sas Goldberg); the youthful spinster Olga by self-loathing; and the comely, preternaturally optimistic Irina seemingly only by the misery of everyone else around her. As Feiffer, might observe in her twittering argot, “sad face.”
Through the use of millennial-speak and ironic detachment, Feiffer attempts to both modernize and humorously distill Three Sisters to its despairing essence, occasionally succeeding as when Masha observes, “That’s what life is, I think? Just doing horrible things? And complaining about them?” But in excising whatever can’t be turned into a readily understandable punchline, Feiffer also strips away all of Chekhov’s emotional nuance, hollowing out the characters until you largely forget who they’re supposed to be.
Feiffer’s dramaturgical shortcomings become more obvious as the play moves along and starts to run out of jokes, or at least a willingness to run them into the ground. With the denouement still too far away and no other options available, Feiffer attempts to remind the audience that there are, in fact, reasons to sympathize with the characters. But, for the most part, the actors cannot pull off this about-face toward pathos.
As a pair of besotted army officers competing for Irina’s affection, Steven Boyer and Matthew Jeffers are particularly cut adrift, spending the first half of the play getting all of the broad laughs that Feiffer’s script deserves, and some that it doesn’t, before falling headlong into a tragic outcome that is far too rushed to register any depth of feeling. More successful are Alfredo Narcisco as Vershinin, an unhappily married army officer who has fallen in love with the unhappily married Masha, and Ray Anthony Thomas as Chebutykin, an army doctor whose alcoholism stems from his own heartbreaking obsession with another man’s wife. Unlike their castmates, Narcisco and Thomas never let the audience forget the source material, even if it means settling for smaller laughs by tapping into the sadness beneath the jokes.
Despite its brief run time, Moscow Moscow Moscow… still feels too long, as director Trip Cullman, who has helmed several of Feiffer’s other comedies, also struggles with the shifting tone. Initially, he stages the action as if the actors all have somewhere else to be, perhaps recognizing that not all of Feiffer’s jokes need to be fully heard, since many of them will come around again. But there’s nothing Cullman can do to keep the play from bogging down when Feiffer remembers far too late that there’s more to life than just making fun of it.
In keeping with the haphazardly anachronistic production, costume designer Paloma Young dresses some of the characters in period-appropriate clothing while others look like they just came back from a shopping spree on Fifth Avenue. She also puts poor Kulygin in a Cats T-shirt, as if being cuckolded weren’t enough. The interior of Mark Wendland’s skeletal country-house set is equally garbled, mixing nineteenth-century Russian details (a samovar, a small Orthodox religious portrait) with items from other times and places (Christmas lights, a Cheburashka doll, Chinese lanterns). Completing the visual mish-mash is Ben Stanton’s lighting, which, at one point, becomes blindingly harsh for no apparent reason. Taken together, it all serves the play’s fundamental avoidance of meaningfulness, which, in Feiffer’s estimation, is for suckers.
Feiffer also isn’t too fond of Chekhov’s ending, which she changes so that, oddly enough, the sisters have more agency but less hope as they arrive at the collective realization that happiness will forever elude them, even if they run away to their beloved Moscow. Because, of course, life is always a futile, miserable slog. As an oh-so-sincere Gen-Xer might respond, “brilliant.”
Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow (through August 17, 2019)
The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, 511 West 52nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-506-9393 or visit http://www.mcctheater.org
Running time: one hour and 35 minutes with no intermission