WILLIAMSTOWN — Anyone who’s familiar with Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters’’ has to smile at the cheekily knowing title of Halley Feiffer’s contemporized adaptation: “Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow.’’
It’s enough to raise your hopes that “Moscow’’ will be a kind of companion piece to “Stupid [Expletive] Bird,’’ Aaron Posner’s freewheeling sendup of Chekhov’s “The Seagull.’’ Let’s face it, the great Russian dramatist is ever-ripe for parody; his oeuvre inspires reverence and irreverence alike.
“Three Sisters’’ in particular abounds in comic potential, with its provincial Prozorov sisters perpetually yearning to return to Moscow yet remaining strangely immobile, forever stalled at that classic Chekhovian intersection of boredom, melancholy, and despair.
When the Trip Cullman-directed world premiere of “Moscow’’ gets underway at Williamstown Theatre Festival, it seems as if the promise suggested by Feiffer’s clever title might be fulfilled. But the play quickly goes off the rails, and by the end of the ham-handed, self-indulgent “Moscow,’’ those early hopes lie in ashes.
One’s heart bleeds for Cullman and his talented cast as they labor frenetically to make “Moscow’’ add up to something, anything. It’s ultimately a losing battle; even performers as brilliantly inventive as Cristin Milioti (a Tony nominee for “Once’’) and Micah Stock (a Tony nominee for “It’s Only a Play’’) can’t save this wildly misguided production. A whiff of desperation starts to come off the Nikos Stage as the evening wears on — and it’s not the kind of desperation Chekhov had in mind.
Where Chekhov gives us timeless wisdom, Feiffer bombards us with millennial snark. That’s not an inherently bad strategy, because it enables her to spoof the more absurd aspects of the world so lugubriously inhabited by the Prozorov sisters: the unhappily married Masha, played by Milioti; Olga (Rebecca Henderson), an embittered school teacher; and Irina (Tavi Gevinson), who starts out extolling the virtues of work, only to end up despising her job at the post office.
It’s the early 1900s, though some of the costumes in “Moscow’’ are deliberately anachronistic (Milioti wears red high-top sneakers, for instance). The sisters are drifting disconsolately through their days in the family home in the Russian countryside, along with their underachieving and unmoored brother Andrey (Thomas Sadoski of HBO’s “The Newsroom’’) and his increasingly nasty and territorial wife, Natasha (Jeanine Serralles).
The Prozorov household is also populated by Chebutykin (Harvy Blanks), an army doctor who dotes on Irina to a degree she finds creepy; Vershinin (Sheaun McKinney), a married lieutenant-colonel with whom Masha falls in love; Kulygin (Ryan Spahn), Masha’s hapless husband; Tuzenbach (Stock), a lieutenant who is besotted with Irina; and Solyony (Glenn Davis), a captain who also pines for Irina and is the object of general scorn.
At its best, “Moscow’’ has fun with the head-scratching facets of “Three Sisters,’’ such as when, early in Feiffer’s play, Irina asks: “Wait, sorry, really quick, maybe this is dumb, but like why can’t we just go back to Moscow?’’ Her entirely logical question is blithely ignored by her sisters.
But the play’s initial amusements soon devolve into puerile nastiness masquerading as wit. Feiffer would no doubt like to think it’s all terribly edgy, but “Moscow’’ has too many instances of mean-spiritedness for its own sake, like a subpar episode of “Veep.’’ Whenever inspiration deserts Feiffer, she tends to dial the volume up to 11. This is a play whose idea of clever badinage is to have one character tell another “You look like a plate of diarrhea.’’ In its second half, when “Moscow’’ undergoes a radical tonal shift from rowdy would-be comedy to somber, gloom-steeped illustration of the futility of life, the play is even less convincing.
This production of “Moscow’’ grew out of Williamstown Theatre Festival’s New Play Commissioning Program. Feiffer is an actress-playwright (and daughter of legendary cartoonist Jules Feiffer) who gave an excellent performance two summers ago at Williamstown as a graduate student facing a tough decision in Daniel Goldfarb’s “Legacy.’’ Her earlier plays, such as “I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard,’’ have won acclaim. No doubt her future work will, too.
In “Moscow,’’ though, Feiffer essentially tries to have it both ways. On the one hand, she wants her play to earn laughs by refracting “Three Sisters’’ through a present-day prism, transposing Chekhov’s dialogue into contemporary conversational rhythms and argot, wrenching his subtext to the surface, literalizing his tropes. “Because that’s — what life is, I think? Just doing horrible things? And complaining about them?’’ Masha says to her sisters at one point.
On the other hand, Feiffer seems to want “Moscow’’ to serve as an adaptation that is faithful, in its way, to “Three Sisters.” She follows Chekhov’s plot and characters and determinedly tries to touch the raw, wrenching depths of despair, largely abandoning attempts at humor, which by then have been misfiring anyway.
The net result is that “Moscow’’ collapses under the weight of its contradictions.
MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW
Play by Halley Feiffer. Directed by Trip Cullman. Presented by Williamstown Theatre Festival. At Nikos Stage, Williamstown, through Aug. 6. Tickets: $58. 413-458-3253, www.wtfestival.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.