July 27, 2019

Chekhov Get a Post-Modern Makeover in "Life Sucks." and "Moscow Moscow..."

Poor Anton Chekhov. For some reason, lots of playwrights have recently decided that the best way for them to write a new play is to cannibalize one of his old ones.

That’s what Aaron Posner does in Life Sucks. (the period's included in its title), a snarky modern-dress riff on Uncle Vanya that had a successful run at The Wild Project earlier this year and is now playing in Theatre Three at Theatre Row through Sept. 1. And it’s what Halley Feiffer has done in her even more annoyingly titled Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow, a punk version of Three Sisters that is running at MCC Theater through Aug. 17.

Both playwrights profess to be big fans of the Russian master and to be paying homage or tribute to him with their reimagining of his classic works (click here to read a discussion between them). But their lavish use of potty-mouthed dialog, their constant breaking of the fourth wall and their replacement of Chekhov’s carefully calibrated subtext with hit-you-on-the-nose explications add up to a kind of simplified Chekhov for Dummies.

It’s not that Posner and Feiffer aren’t talented. Posner’s My Name is Asher Lev, a sensitive adaptation of Chaim Potok's novel about an Orthodox Jewish boy who breaks away from his family to become an artist, made my Top 10 list for 2013. And although parts of it made me cringe with discomfort, I was ultimately moved by I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard, Feiffer’s 2015 drama about a toxic relationship between a father and daughter that seemed to echo the one between the playwright and her father, the cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer.

This time out however, both writers seem more interested in showing off how cleverly post-modern they can be. For the most part, the characters and the storylines in their updates hew close to the Chekhov originals. Vanya, the central figure in Life Sucks. is still a sad sack who has spent his life managing a country estate for the pompous professor who is his brother-in-law and pining for the man’s younger second wife. The three sisters in Moscow are still living in a provincial Russian town and longing for what they believe will be a more fulfilling life in the capital.

The entanglements with and among their relatives, friends and other hangers on also remain in both plays. What’s different are the self-consciously colloquial and often profane language (“I look like shit, but what else is new? I've always looked like shit,” complains Olga, the oldest of the sisters in Moscow) and the self-indulgent meta-theatrics that often mar the most tiresome skits on "Saturday Night Live" (at various points, the characters in Life Sucks. line up and dance awkwardly or quiz the audience about how sucky their lives are).

But Chekhov had already let me know how unhappy Olga was without the obscenity and how dispirited Vanya and his gang were without the embarrassing shuffling around. All that said, I did enjoy some elements of each current production.

Posner has made his female characters feistier than Chekhov’s. The snooty aristocratic mother-in-law has been replaced with a down-to-earth godmother and the gloomy male retainer Waffles has been transformed into a more upbeat lesbian named Pickles. Even Vanya’s lovelorn niece Sonia has been given more backbone than she has in the original version. And it's refreshing to see these women speaking up for themselves.

Feiffer meanwhile, has trimmed Chekhov’s sometimes rambling four acts down to 90-minutes. And although that might make some of the storytelling a little confusing for people unfamiliar with Three Sisters, it does give Moscow a propulsive energy. And even some of its silliest moments (and there are plenty of them) are laugh-out-loud funny.

Both Trip Cullman who directed Moscow and Jeff Wise, who helmed Life Sucks., honor the intentions of their playwrights and the shenanigans they’ve crafted (Cullman even includes some business with a Whoopee cushion) but they also leave room for the actors to breathe real life into their characters.

And those actors, cast without regard for race or in some cases gender, are almost across-the-board excellent. Moscow in particular features a murderers’ row of heavy hitters including Stephen Boyer, Tavi Gevinson, Sas Goldberg, Alfredo Narciso and Ray Anthony Thompson. But first among equals for me was the male actor Chris Perfetti, who portrays the unhappily married middle sister Masha who has an affair with a military officer temporarily assigned to the town.

Costumed in a long black dress but eschewing even the slightest bit of camp, Perfetti so perfectly captured both the humor and the pathos of the character that his performance would have been totally at home in even the most traditional production of Three Sisters. It reassured me that no matter what they do to him, Chekhov will be OK.

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