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The Fourth Sister

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

It may be somewhat difficult for those familiar with the plays of Anton Chekhov to consider as many of them comedies as he did; frequently, productions of his work today take on such weight and reverence that "comedy" is about the last word that could apply to them. Janusz Glowacki's new play at the Vineyard Theatre, The Fourth Sister, doesn't shed new light on Chekhov's plays, but it does find a way to get us laughing at them again.

It does this by parodying the elements present in so many of his works, the way younger drama students or more inexperienced theatergoers might today. It uses every imaginable technique to shed light on the dramatic techniques that Chekhov exploited, and then use them to its own comic advantage. In that way, The Fourth Sister is undeniably clever as a lighthearted tribute and examination of Chekhov's works in general, and - perhaps obviously - The Three Sisters in particular.

There are three sisters to be found in this play - Tania (Alicia Goranson), Wiera (Jessica Hecht), and Katia (Marin Hinkle), though they don't dream of escaping to Moscow, for they live there. They long instead for the bounties of America, where they hope to stay with their uncle (named Vanya, of course) and carve new lives for themselves. When John Freeman (Steven Rattazzi), a documentary filmmaker arrives to shoot a movie about poor Russian prostitutes, the women feel they may have their chance.

Glowacki has woven the tapestry of his tale well, incorporating a laughably diverse set of elements - cross-dressing, the Russian mafia, and a philosophical accordion player among them - into a story that, against all odds, makes some sense. Director Lisa Peterson accentuates Glowacki's work with a buoyancy that prevents the material from being leaden, while occasionally demonstrating some sparks of brilliance; Peterson's achievement of making the melodramatic speeches and contrived situations of the second act almost plausible is hardly an insignificant one.

But the trap into which Glowacki falls, and which even Peterson's otherwise strong work cannot prevent, is that the joke is not consistently funny enough. There's not really enough substance in The Fourth Sister to sustain the conceit over nearly two and a half hours of playing time; aside from poking fun at Chekhov's writing style, the play itself has little point. It seems clear that Glowacki intended the play as a partial comment on the influence of American pop culture on other countries, but it's half-hearted and ill-formed at best.

This is best demonstrated in what should be (but isn't) a pivotal scene in the first act, when Tania prepares to sacrifice her virginity to help Wiera raise $600. It had already been well established that Tania is obsessed with American movies - Pretty Woman in particular - but the allusions to the original film when she reaches the critical moment are so ham-handed, they may as well be lit with neon. In The Fourth Sister, Glowacki is generally less effective when he tries to be profound; his parody comes across as almost effortless in comparison.

Goranson, Hecht, and Hinkle are all quite good as the sisters, deftly handling the mock-Chekhovian whining and despairing. Daniel Oreskes and Lee Pace, as the would-be lovers of two of the sisters, are very effective in their roles, bringing just the right tone of wackiness to the more serious matters of the heart. Suzanne Shepherd, as Babushka, utilizes a world-weary voice to present the perfect portrait of an aging Russian woman with a nogoodnik son. Jase Blankfort as Stopia, the orphan taken in by the sisters and their family, has a pivotal role, though his performance tends to be more effective the less he says.

There are some questionable choices in the script, particularly in an almost painfully extended second act sequence involving bulletproof vests. However, aside from some pacing difficulties associated with one joke being stretched out a bit too long, those highly familiar with Chekhov's work will probably find the play entertaining; those unfamiliar with Chekov's work will likely find The Fourth Sister intractable.

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The Fourth Sister
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one 10-minute intermission
Schedule and Tickets: (212) 353-0303