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The Sisters

Women Behaving Badly

If you’ve ever sought a literary precursor to the cultural phenomenon that was Seinfeld, the place to start might be the writings of Anton Chekhov. Long before George Costanza and Cosmo Kramer became household names, Chekhov crafted plays about nothing, littered with characters whose boorish behavior was inspired, more than anything else, by boredom. And though Chekhov’s plays were often informed by a sobriety that would have seemed wildly out of place on a prime-time sitcom, he rarely failed to wring subtle humor out of abject misery.

Consider The Three Sisters. It is an action-free tale of adultery, alienation and listlessness, yet Chekhov infuses his story with much-needed comic relief in the form of characters like Chebutykin, a bumbling drunk with a penchant for smashing clocks. Like most of Chekhov’s creations, Chebutykin is something of a tragic figure, an aging doctor who’s lost all interest in living and crawled inside a bottle, but his meandering justifications for his behavior are endearingly funny.

If only The Sisters had more characters like him – or any like him, for that matter. Here, director Arthur Allan Seidelman and screenwriter Richard Alfieri have transplanted Chekhov’s forlorn cast from 19th-century Russia to modern-day Manhattan, where Marcia (Maria Bello), Olga (Mary Stuart Masterson) and youngest sister Irene (Erika Christensen) are free to express their contempt for the world around them, ad nauseam. They are an angry, backstabbing bunch, to be sure, bitterly sniping at supposed friends as often as they snipe at each other, but they are united by, among other things, a nostalgic wistfulness for their South Carolina upbringing. (Cue the flashbacks!)

They are also united by a dark family secret, an unforgivable act committed by their late father that helps explain their simmering resentments. Even so, it’s hard to sympathize with such a venomous, self-absorbed crew. Alfieri, whose script is based on his own play of the same name, has re-imagined Chekhov’s Sisters as a shrill, two-hour shouting match, bereft of the levity and charm that made the original such an enduring success. It’s an uncomfortable experience, but then, most shouting matches are.

For the record, Chebutykin does make an appearance. Rip Torn, a gifted comic actor who has spent a career playing deliciously devious snakes, plays Dr. Chebrin, a doddering family friend who patiently listens as the sisters tear themselves to shreds. Sadly, he’s used as little more than a sounding board for their rants. The Sisters pays faithful tribute to the darkest side of Chekhov’s writing, but lost in translation, somewhere along the way, is the ironic perspective that makes it all tolerable.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars