Chekov's plays take place in rural Russia at the turn of the century. You may think this is obvious, but with only a few exceptions, no one in Scott Elliott's all-star cast of "The Three Sisters" seems aware of it.
Lanford Wilson's heavily Americanized adaptation of the script shows no such awareness. Nor does the cast, replete with Hollywood names (Amy Irving, Eric Stoltz, Billy Crudup), display any consistency of style or accent that might transport us to Chekhov's world.
The title characters, whose parents are dead, flounder in a small town with no eligible suitors. Masha has married a pedant, whom she despises. Her siblings will clearly remain spinsters.
Their lives are brightened by the arrival of a regiment of soldiers, with one of whom Masha has an affair. The sisters' ineffectual brother, Andre, marries the vulgar Natasha, who destroys their admittedly fragile world.
The text of a Chekhov play is the tip of an iceberg. Unless the actors supply the structure underneath, unless they suggest the society in which the action takes place, the plays themselves seem sketchy and unconvincing.
Director Elliott has encouraged intensely theatrical acting, as he did in "Present Laughter." There, it heightened the play's own artificiality. Here, it makes a naturalistic play seem fake.
The key exception is David Strathairn, who plays Masha's lover with great force. As Masha, Jeanne Tripplehorn conveys disdain but little else.
Amy Irving has dignity but no poignance as Olga. Lili Taylor's Irina is an impetuous American teenager (which may explain why she pronounces "Moscow" to rhyme with "Roscoe").Betty Miller, however, conveys depth as a befuddled servant.
We should all see ourselves in Chekhov's yearning, but feckless, characters. Curiously, the American-ness of this production does not make it any more immediate. It only muddies the play to the point it can no longer serve as a mirror for anything.
It's no secret that when people in a Chekhov play talk about how wonderful tomorrow is going to be, what they're really saying is that today is lousy. Still, it's a special treat to see what an actor like David Strathairn can make of this sad spiritual grammar, speaking in the future tense because life in the present is all too glum, all too boring, all too distant from anything noble.
Mr. Strathairn is playing Vershinin, the unhappily married lieutenant in Scott Elliott's erratic production of ''Three Sisters,'' which opened last night at the Roundabout Theater Company. And when his character arrives in the provincial household of the Prozorov sisters, it is easy to understand why he becomes a magnet for them, and not only because he's fresh from Moscow, the golden city of the women's dreams.
He's more than an airy fantasizer, describing an unimaginable but glorious future centuries away; he is obviously rooted in an almost masochistic awareness of present circumstances, and there's never any question that he's responding immediately to what surrounds him. (Watch how he turns Vershinin's assertion that happiness is impossible into a coded invitation to pursue it, addressed to the woman he loves.)
Yet Mr. Strathairn plays down the more obvious romantic posturing associated with the role. His voice is pitched low and evenly; his gestures are few and small. He brings to mind an often-quoted Chekhov dictum, ''When someone expends the least amount of motion on a given action, that's grace.''
That state of grace is, heaven knows, hard to come by, and that Mr. Strathairn acquired it in the short period of rehearsal time afforded by Roundabout productions is itself a small miracle. Watching this spotty, nobly ambitious interpretation, one is tempted, in Chekhovian terms, to imagine a utopian system in American theater in which actors would have time to burrow fully under the skins of their characters, as they did in Louis Malle and Andre Gregory's film ''Vanya on 42d Street.''
As it is, one is left with only a handful of fully integrated performances in a play that needs a meticulously balanced ensemble to succeed. This production is dotted with moments of luminous insight. But it never achieves the fluid sense of people existing continuously in the unforgiving element of time, which alters them by subtle, erosive degrees.
Too many of the actors in this impressively starry cast are reduced to shorthand characterizations. Often they resort to either a broad series of personality-defining gestures or the striking of one emotional note that is held, with only small variations, throughout the play. And there's a pervasive air of self-consciousness that is only underscored by Lanford Wilson's oddly strained translation.
And while ''Three Sisters'' may be about human loneliness, it is also crucially about the ways in which people affect one another's destinies, often unwittingly, by their sheer proximity. Mr. Elliott, a director who realized just this kind of effect in his productions of ''Ecstasy'' and ''Curtains'' for the New Group, hasn't been able to do the same here.
Instead, he has chosen to stress the characters' isolation with staging, seen against Derek McLane's forbiddingly gray sets, that places oceans of distance between them. Monologues are frequently directed at the audience, sometimes creating a sense that the performers are auditioning for an actors' workshop. (You can feel their relief in the crowded social scenes in which interaction is mandatory.)
As a consequence, the evening definitely seems long at three and a half hours. But it is by no means a total waste of time. Mr. Strathairn's exemplary performance alone makes it worth seeing. And there are two other incisively fresh interpretations of familiar characters that etch themselves into the memory: that of Billy Crudup, in the relatively small role of a destructively unhinged young soldier, and of Calista Flockhart, who portrays Natalya (or Natasha), one of the most compellingly selfish characters in theater history.
But first, the sisters themselves, embodied by a particularly glamorous trio of actresses: Amy Irving, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Lili Taylor, all known for their exciting work in films. As Olga, the spinster schoolteacher and the eldest of the three, Ms. Irving comes off best. Her natural girlish luminousness, peeking through the character's strained comportment, and her slightly affected diction work to her advantage here.
In the opening scenes, she has the social composure of a veteran hostess. And to see Olga stripped of this identity once Natasha, who marries the Prozorov brother, Andrei (Paul Giamatti), takes over the house is heartbreaking. Ms. Irving seems to be gradually drained of color as the evening progresses, clinging to old-world, genteel notions of how one treats people with a valiant, beleaguered tenacity.
The performances of Ms. Tripplehorn and Ms. Taylor remain largely in one key, and their monotony can become wearing. As Irina, the youngest of the sisters, Ms. Taylor needs to have a radiant, dewy bloom at the play's beginning. Yet she seems a blighted bud from the start, already pinched with despair. And her lines are mostly delivered in a tired, recitative rasp.
As the restive, miserably married Masha, who falls in love with Vershinin, Ms. Tripplehorn looks ravishing in the sweeping black dresses Theoni V. Aldredge has designed for her. Yet this Masha's extremely mannered moodiness seems to stem less from depression than from a need for attention. And she tends to render the character's unhappiness with the peevish, disgusted expressions of a spoiled socialite who has found a worm in her frisee salad.
Ms. Tripplehorn does have fleeting moments, particularly in her scenes with Mr. Strathairn, that suggest that with time she could grow into the role. The same could be said of much of the rest of the cast, although Jerry Stiller, who brings a Catskills comedian's inflections to the part of the cynical old doctor, is miscast beyond redemption.
David Marshall Grant, as Masha's wind-up pedant of a husband, and Eric Stoltz, as the doomed, slightly fatuous baron who loves Irina, are still relying too much on indicative gestures, like the nervous rubbing together of hands. But they both achieve a touching, understated dignity toward the play's end.
And Mr. Crudup, who turns his leading-man handsomeness into the frightening mask of an emotional cripple, is riveting as the noxious Solyony, the baron's rival. The antagonistic, alienating nonsense he spouts comes across as almost involuntary, like a hiccup. And he reminds one of the ties between this character and Dostoyevsky's self-lacerating Underground Man.
Mr. Giamatti, as the spineless brother of the household, is excellent in the play's first half, with his apologetic, defensive stoop and air of affronted embarrassment. And his scene (beautifully staged by Mr. Elliott) with Natasha at the beginning of the second act, in which their respective postures say everything about the state of their marriage, is one of the evening's high points. He pitches the rest of his performance too high, though, in ways that verge on melodrama.
Ms. Flockhart, better known for wistful ingenue roles (Laura in the Roundabout's ''Glass Menagerie,'' the sweet fiancee of the film ''The Bird Cage''), is smashing as the affected parvenu Natasha, however. As the other characters wither in time's grasp, this Natasha glows ever brighter with a frightening, cannibalistic aura.
Watch the sly shiver of satisfaction that sweeps through Ms. Flockhart's body as she forces a table of men to rise to their feet when she leaves a room. Endlessly self-absorbed and unable to see beyond the immediate gratification of her desires, she is clearly the only kind of person who can triumph in Chekhov's universe of paralyzed souls. And Ms. Flockhart wisely makes no apologies for her character.
The only problem with her performance is that it does throw the play out of kilter. You watch her with the same enjoyment you might bring to reading Thackeray's ''Vanity Fair'' as it follows the progress of the unscrupulous Becky Sharpe. In this production, Natasha becomes, by default, its energizing life force. And the audience's tendency to grow impatient with the brooding Prozorov sisters, always a danger, is enhanced here.
Every time Irina mutters about how much she wants to go to Moscow, she sounds increasingly like a fretful 4-year-old in the back seat of a car. Chekhov saw the sisters' foibles with a very clear eye, but he also wanted his audiences to sympathize with them, and deeply. The Roundabout production makes this an uphill battle.
In director Scott Elliott's superficial staging of "Three Sisters," everything but the running time gets reduced. Chekhov's elegy of longing is whittled to whining, desperation becomes petulance and passion comes off as bloodless flirtation. An all-star production in which all the stars seem to have been allowed to devise acting styles and characterizations without consulting one another (or the all-star director), the much-anticipated "Three Sisters" is one of the biggest disappointments of the Broadway season to date.
Granted, Elliott --- whose most recent Broadway outing, "Present Laughter," was either crass or wonderfully energetic, depending upon the observer (I voted crass) --- has the great misfortune of directing the second production of this classic to play New York in recent months. The Sovremennik Theater's staging that visited the Lunt-Fontanne Theater last November, with its clap-trap set and slapdash production values, mined emotions in "Three Sisters" that Elliott and most of his cast approach tepidly and infrequently.
Played on a set in which the walls and furniture of the Prozorov household are as drab and washed-out as the characters' lives (a design that sacrifices historical accuracy --- and theatrical panache --- for symbolism), Elliott's "Three Sisters" does boast a facile touch (if facile Chekhov can be a boast) that lends the play an accessibility sometimes lacking in more ponderous versions. And the story of three upper-class sisters longing for love, meaning and Moscow at least has two performances --- Amy Irving as eldest sister Olga and Lili Taylor as the youngest, Irina --- that provide a depth elsewhere lacking.
But reductionism notwithstanding, Chekhov's sisters remain a trio, and any imbalance all but sinks the play. Jeanne Tripplehorn, an actress best known for her film work but one who's turned in fine performances Off Broadway, takes a wildly misguided approach to Masha. As the middle sister stuck in an unsatisfying marriage and secretly in love with the soldier Vershinin, Tripplehorn overplays the character's anger nearly to the exclusion of every other emotion. With her thoroughly modern acting style and rather condescending air, Tripplehorn seems more New York intellectual than Russian aristocrat, as if she'd wandered in from one of Woody Allen's serious movies.
At least she'd be wandering in from something serious. Paul Giamatti, as the sisters' pensive, dispirited brother Andrei, plays urban neurosis like a Richard Lewis stand-up routine, then slides into shaky-voiced melodrama when the going gets tough. David Marshall Grant portrays Kulygin, Masha's schoolteacher husband, as a nutty professor buffoon, at least providing what might be the only reason Masha would fall for David Strathairn's nervous, sensitive-guy colonel. Nearly to a man (and certainly to Eric Stoltz's lovestruck Baron), the males in this production come off so nerdy that the sisters have more reason than ever to flee for Moscow.
The oddest thing of all about these performances is that they are committed by good actors. In some cases, miscasting is the culprit: Billy Crudup, terrific in "Arcadia" and the only thing that salvaged last season's "Bus Stop," lacks the bearing for a credible Solyony, the sadistic soldier obsessed with Irina. Jerry Stiller, as the alcoholic doctor resigned to loss and old age, settles quite convincingly into the role but only after audiences stop reacting to his every line as if it were a joke on "Seinfeld."
But mostly, the varied acting approaches seem the result of the director's ill-defined vision for the play. Surely Elliott had more in mind than simply providing a group of hot, talented, Hollywood-credentialed actors a shot at Chekhov, but if there's an artistic viewpoint that drives this production it makes no appearance on the Roundabout stage. These sisters could use more than a little fatherly guidance.