It’s a pretty safe bet to say that when most people think of the works of Anton Chekhov, they don’t immediately think “reality television.” Yet Halley Feiffer’s new play, Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow (yep, six Moscows—count them), often resembles an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashiansas much it does its source material, Chekhov’s Three Sisters. (Seriously, take this clip from Keeping Up with the Kardashians, add better acting, and it could be a clip from the play.)
It is difficult to describe exactly what Feiffer has done with Three Sisters to create Moscow…, currently in previews at MCC Theater. “Adaptation” is such a loose term, and Feiffer has kept the structure of Chekhov’s original work largely intact to the point where Moscow… could be considered a “radical translation.” The term “modernization” might work, but Feiffer has not rewritten Three Sisters in a contemporary context. Instead, Feiffer brings modernity to the play, splicing the DNA of Three Sisters with that of our contemporary world. Moscow… is still set in the Russian countryside in 1900, but the play’s props, costumes, and syntax are drawn directly from 2019. (My favorite bit of modernization is turning the green belt in Chekhov’s play into a camo Gucci fanny pack; the clever costume design is by Paloma Young.)
And let’s be clear, the contemporary English of Feiffer’s play is not the kind you’d find in a translation of Chekhov in the Norton Anthology of Drama. Feiffer’s script is full of slang, text-speak, and obscenities. In the first scene of the play, the eldest sister, Olga (Rebecca Henderson), describes in detail how each part of her body looks like shit; the middle sister, Masha (Chris Perfetti), bookends a bit of poetry with some pretty obscene words for vagina; and the youngest sister, Irina (Tavi Gevinson), presses her face into a cake and whines, “I’m eating my feelings!” (#relatable, am I right?).
Moscow… really does play out like a reality TV show. The play centers on three sisters: Olga, an unmarried school teacher who is the head bitch of the house, at least at the beginning of the play; Masha, melancholy and totally over her husband, Kulygin (Ryan Spahn), a Latin teacher with an undying love for Broadway and his Mash-Mash; and Irina, the spoiled young beauty who is pursued by Solyony (Matthew Jeffers) and Tuzenbach (Steven Boyer) and doted on by a man who loved her mother, Chebutykin (Ray Anthony Thomas). The household is rounded out by the aging servant Anfisa (Ako) and the sisters’ brother, Andrey (Greg Hildreth), who longs to be a scholar and is in love with Natasha (Sas Goldberg), a common woman treated like a whore by Andrey’s sisters (she probably is) until she takes over the house. We also meet Ferapont (Gene Jones), an old government employee who’s not that important, and Vershinin, a dashing soldier with a wife and two kids (he keeps reminding us) who is super important.
On some level, Feiffer has written a “parody,” both of Three Sisters and of drama in general. Some of the funniest moments in what is a laugh-out-loud hilarious play result from metatheatrical jabs. The actors look directly at the audience when they’re introducing information that the characters undoubtedly know but has to be said for the audience’s benefit. In the first scene of Act Two, Olga looks confusedly at an angry Natasha and says, “Natasha, I haven’t seen you since Act One.”
What the sisters want more than anything is to go to Moscow, a word punctuated by a yearning gaze at a large postcard-like image of modern Moscow hanging on the far wall with the word “MOCKBA” in large, marquee letters above it. The first of these heightened gazes is broken by Irina asking why they can’t just go back to Moscow, a question which is immediately (and comedically) dismissed.
Feiffer’s script is relentless, and so is Trip Collman’s direction. The play gets off to a quick, intense start and never really lets up; the jokes are rapid-fire and potent just as the tonal shifts are abrupt and startling. Feiffer and Collman are experts at getting the audience bent over laughing before punching them in the stomach with something sad and disturbing. These shifts are facilitated by Darron L. West’s sound design, which incorporates Russian rap and record scratches, and Ben Staton’s dramatic lighting design.
The combination of laughter and sadness is, in part, what Chekhov himself was trying to achieve with his plays: a revelation of the absurdity, and resultant hilarity and despair, of everyday life. Moscow… exaggerates—or perhaps distills—Chekhov through Feiffer’s lens of modernity and makes potent and biting the jokes about suicide, the passages filled with equal parts irony and longing, and the depression of a crumbling aristocracy.
The characters in Moscow… are well-off, but they are profoundly unhappy. Their discontent is completely self-centered; the characters rarely (if ever) show empathy for other people. As a fire rages in town, Olga chooses clothing to donate but makes sure to keep the cutest things for herself. When Ferapont meets Andrey pushing his child in a tram, the older man tells Andrey about 2,000 people who froze to death, and Andrey responds: “I don’t care about those people. I don’t even care about this baby. And this is my baby.”
The play alternates between inviting us to laugh at the “unhappiness” of the privileged and showing us true, deep despair. Irina and Masha both have moments when they genuinely freak out, and these are some of the saddest parts of the play, in addition to Chebutykin’s relapse into alcoholism and the love/hate relationship between Solyony and Tuzenbach. The characters may still have a house to sleep in and clothes to wear, but the pain these people feel is disturbingly real. Everyone in the play reveals that they are genuinely not okay; in fact, the play seems to argue, no matter how much you have, you will never be okay.
When Vershinin and Tuzenbach speak about what the world will be like in two-to-three hundred years, it is hard not to compare our time with the worlds they envision. Tuzenbach says that life will still be as horrible as it is for them, since no matter what happens, people will always be miserable. Vershinin dreams of the possibility of a world that is marvelous and beautiful, a world without pain that can be built gradually, generation by generation.
We’re a little past the halfway point to two hundred years from when Moscow… takes place. So, what do we think? Are people still as unhappy? Or is there hope for progress?
Moscow… doesn’t offer a clear answer.
But, if life does suck, the play at least offers a great opportunity to laugh about it.