The Fourth Sister, Janusz Glowacki’s early 21st-century spin-off of Anton Chekhov’s early 20th-century Three Sisters, won the 2001 International Theatre
Festival in Dubrovnik. Maybe you had to be there. Now that it’s docked in Manhattan, the tragi-comedy or comic-tragedy or whatever doesn’t look like an obvious award winner — unless, when the theater prize season rolls around, it snares the Nice Try Award.
Director Lisa Peterson, interviewed in the Vineyard’s newsletter, The Grapevine, may clue a puzzled observer into the problem when she says, “I was attracted to this play because of the dynamic collision of tones. It’s full of surprises and resists being pinned
down stylistically, so that it feels very free and very theatrical.” But when a play is so many things at once, which The Fourth Sister is, it ultimately runs the risk of being nothing in particular.
Glowacki’s title is, of course, intended to pique audience interest by implying that it relates to the Chekhov classic in which three sisters watch their lives deteriorate while
holding on to the belief that things would be peachy if only they could realize their dream of moving to
Moscow. Glowacki gets his biggest — and maybe only genuine — laugh in The Fourth Sister by suggesting that the joke’s on the misguided sisters. Life, he posits, not only doesn’t always improve when one makes a geographic move but, often, gets a lot worse.
In the colloquial translation from the Polish that he has done with Eva Nagorski, Glowacki introduces a set of modern-day Moscow sisters. They’re Wiera (Jessica Hecht), Katia (Marin Hinkle), and Tania (Alicia Goranson). Also on hand is an orphan called Stiopa (Jase Blankfort), their surrogate brother. The benighted young women are caught up in the haphazard, hapless tangle that post-Communist, Mafia-infested Russia has become, and Glowacki means to make theatrical hay out of this nasty development. He writes a play wherein the sob(bing) sisters, living in housing that is hardly better than that which they would have occupied before the U.S.S.R. breakup, long to better themselves but see their wishes go up in smoke — or, eventually, go splat in a hail of Kalashnikov bullets.
Just as Chekhov’s Olga, Masha, and Irina believe that the men for whom they’ve got cow eyes will whisk them away, Wiera, Katia, and Tania pin their meager hopes on disappointing lovers. Wiera thinks she’ll tie the knot with Yuri (Daniel Oreskes, looking like Vincent Price), a married politico who impregnates her and then gives her the brush-off. Katia falls for American film-maker John Freeman (Steven Rattazzi — and notice the character’s do-you-get-it surname), who thanks his wife rather than Katia when he wins an Oscar for a documentary called The Children of Moscow that features, of all people, Stiopa in drag. Tania’s inamorata is Kostia (Lee Pace), the galoot upstairs who just happens to be involved in the kind of free-agent drug trafficking that brings wiseguys around to call.
If not tragic, these predicaments are certainly upsetting; but, as all good satirists do, Glowacki thinks to provoke giggles nonetheless. So he concocts situations that are
supposed to be uproarious — but aren’t. To mention a few randomly, there’s Babushka (Suzanne Shepherd), Kostia’s mother, who keeps running into the sisters’ shabby flat to
throw open the window. She wants to catch Kostia, whom she thinks is being thrown down from the floor above. For more supposed chuckles, Tania attaches letters to strings on blue balloons that she’s sending to heaven with requests for her deceased mother to fill. (One of the balloons pops.) Whenever Russian mafiosi Ivan Pavlovicz (Daniel Oreskes again, this time not looking like Vincent Price) and Misza (Steven Rattazzi again) enter the flat, they shuffle across the floor on pieces of plastic, perhaps so as not to leave footprints. When Misza is shot and falls, he only remains down for a minute or so before leaping up, pulling his shirt open to reveal a bullet-proof vest. Then he grabs a mike and delivers an obstreperous commercial for the essential apparel to the audience.
Need to hear more? Tania, seeing John as a way out of Moscow to Hollywood (where, CNN tells her, the grass is even greener), comes up with the notion of dressing Stiopa as a prostitute and having him tell Freeman’s camera his experiences as a prostitute. (This explains why, in the play’s initial scene, Stiopa — wearing an iridescent
“Donna Karan” — is standing next to Freeman when that Oscar is given out.) Throughout the action, Katia, a lawyer who can only get work as a zookeeper, steals half the meat allotment for her main charge, a tiger named Pepsi. Also throughout the action, a pair of red shoes — which each of the three sisters tries on and
don’t fit into — is prominent. This is one of the play’s milder gags, hinting that none of these cracked belles will ever get to attend any sort of ball.
Glowacki is correct that there are no end of targets in contemporary Russia — or America, for that matter — that are ripe for tomato tossing. The playwright doesn’t hit very many of those targets squarely, but the cast members are as energetic as a team of Olympic gymnasts. Alicia Goranson, who’s become one of the town’s busiest actors, does a few pirouettes as a girl who’s been thrown out of ballet school but thinks she might have talent anyway. When she and Lee Pace (looking like a young Christopher Walken) play their lust, er, love scenes, both of them give it all they’ve got. Jessica Hecht and Marin Hinkle also do their level best, although theirs aren’t the kinds of parts they can sink their teeth into as they have so often before.
Of the men, Jase Blankfort is the stand-out. He doesn’t get to say very much because the script mostly has him washing floors and retreating to corners, but he scores plenty when the sisters gussy him up as a streetwalker; the abashed looks he gives at that point are adorable. Daniel Oreskes, Steven Rattazzi, and Louis Tucci (who squeezes an accordion every once in a while) don’t offer the merest hint that what they’re asked to perform is in any way embarrassing. The same is true of Suzanne Shepherd in her babushka as Babushka and Bill Buell as the sisters’ father, a retired and very retiring military man. Mattie Ullrich designed the so-called Donna Karan and the rest of the rags; Rachel Hauck did the sets, Kevin Adams the lights, and Jill B. C. Du Boff the sound.
The cover of the program features, among other germane items, an image of a Matrioshka doll, the ubiquitous toy that contains smaller and smaller versions of itself. When Glowacki’s play is opened, however, there’s precious little inside.