A lack of resources will limit even the best-written stage play to a bunch of characters standing around talking. Film, on the other hand, is all about possibility; the world is the director's oyster, so to speak. Settings can change, time is malleable, and a well-constructed visual can be worth a thousand words.
Alas, in translating The Sisters a theatrical update of Chekhov's Three Sisters to the screen, neither writer Richard Alfieri nor director Arthur Allan Seidelman has the faintest clue about how to make a movie.
In adapting his play, Alfieri seems to make few (if any) concessions for the screen and delivers an overly stagy script. The story has only three or four locations (which are stuffy and uninspired), the dialogue is overwrought and pretentious, and what little remains of Chekhov's work has been reduced to dull psychodrama. Only the film's terrific cast manages to keep The Sisters from becoming a complete waste of time.
The plot is stock repertory theater: As the hyper-intellectual Prior sisters frantically prepare for their youngest sister's birthday party, nasty rivalries, a bitter marriage and unresolved childhood traumas produce endless histrionic confrontations.
There's Olga (Mary Stuart Masterson), the repressed and disapproving ice queen, Marcia (Maria Bello), the oversexed aging bitch, and Irene (Erika Christensen), the sweet naïf. It goes without saying: All three sisters have daddy issues.
On the day of the party, Marcia is tempted to betray her husband when she meets sexy Vincent (Tony Goldwyn), a man who once studied under her father. Lovable Irene, on the other hand, struggles to choose between two lovelorn but duplicitous professors (Chris O'Donnell and Eric McCormack). Meanwhile, spineless brother Andrew (Allesandro Nivola) earns his sisters' wrath by showing up with his trashy fiancee (Elizabeth Banks). If you've ever attended community theater, the conflicts play out pretty much as you'd expect: lots of petty bickering and emotional fireworks.
Director Seidelman struggles to inject some flourish into the film's poorly conceived flashbacks, but it just looks amateurish. The film's production values barely reach the level of a low-budget cable film.
Given Alfieri's trite and overwritten soap opera, it can only be assumed that The Sisters' stellar cast signed on out of some misguided loyalty to Chekhov. There isn't a bad performance in the bunch, but Bello, in particular, stands out. Though Marcia is thoroughly unlikable, Bello's passion and absolute commitment to character make every moment she's on screen absorbing.
Though the biting irony and melodrama of Anton Chekhov can hold its own against the best of Shakespeare and Shaw, the Russian playwright has yet to be paid his cinematic due. The best so far has been Louis Malle's 1994 version of Vanya On 42nd Street, which brilliantly captured a New York cast as they rehearsed Uncle Vanya in a run-down theater. If Richard Alfieri and Arthur Allan Seidelman are the best cinema has to offer the playwright, then Malle's subtle comment that Chekhov's work has been abandoned by American culture turns out to be more truth than critique.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111)..
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].