Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal
in Three Sisters
(© Joan Marcus)
Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal
in Three Sisters
(© Joan Marcus)
Anton Chekhov penned plays he insisted on calling comedies, although they impressed others as dramas with ironic comic relief. As a result, his works hurl tough challenges at actors. Luckily, some of the cast of Austin Pendleton's uneven production of Chekhov's Three Sisters, now at Classic Stage Company, rise to the challenge of walking that fine line between comedy and drama.

The characters that Chekhov plucked from what he observed of the world around him live aimless, unrewarding lives. Unsurprisingly, they can seem extremely callow and even be depicted as figures of fun -- but beneath their exteriors, they experience emotions deeply.

That's especially true of the sisters in question: hard-working, spinster schoolteacher Olga (Jessica Hecht); married, supremely bored Masha (Maggie Gyllenhaal); and young Irina (Juliet Rylance, a pleasure to look at and listen to) who travels a sad route from innocence to dire disillusionment in just a few short years as her dreams of returning to Moscow fade into dust. (Admittedly, these sisters seem so artistic in their leanings that they might actually be happier in St. Petersburg.)

The ladies, while the main players in Chekhov's scenario, are just part of the equation. Josh Hamilton is well-rounded as the sisters' aimless brother Andrey (whom in Paul Schmidt's colloquial translation is often called "Andy," which hits the ear oddly), while Marin Ireland is good, if slightly off her usual top form, as Andrey's initially meek, ultimately bossy wife Natasha.

Also rising to the occasion are Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Irina's persistent admirer, Baron Tuzenbach, and Louis Zorich as angry, frequently inebriated Dr. Chebutykin. (The large cast also includes Roberta Maxwell, George Morfogen, Anson Mount, and Paul Lazar.)

However, the most troublesome performance comes from Peter Sarsgaard as Vershinin, the married military officer who falls in love with Masha. The actor doesn't get anywhere near the despair his character is meant to suffer. (Gyllenhaal, his real-life wife, also suffers at times from the same problem.) When Vershinin tells Masha he loves her, it's with no more passion than he might have said, "Pass the samovar."

Performed on the CSC thrust arena, the opus looks smart at the outset with designer Walt Spangler having strategically placed a large table set for a sumptuous birthday repast, a piano and eight flower-filled vases. He continues to use that table in different ways for the next two acts (which are combined without intermission). However, when act four rolls around, he just leans the hulking object against the back wall to create the house's courtyard.

While the fervor of Chekhov's characters should inspire deep involvement with the audience, Pendleton's production only accomplishes that feat on a few occasions.