“The play is really an offering to the gods, not the audience.” – Marcia
The Sisters—which barely mines material from Anton Chekhov’s 1901 play, “The Three Sisters”, before giving way to playwright/screenwriter Richard Alfieri’s words and intentions—is yet another intimate play that, like other intimate plays fashioned to blow through the room (in this case, the main drama takes place in a staid, baroque, double-floor teacher’s lounge at a prestigious university), kicks you out on your own, trying to figure out who is who before realizing, ah, these are different people!
One wouldn’t know right away, with how the sarcasm and grandiose statements fly thickly without even letting the audience get settled. But this play doesn’t belong to us. It’s Alfieri’s, and the actors involved know that too, having clearly accepted their roles since it would likely add prestige to their list of credits.
Eric McCormack is in that lounge as Gary Sokol, a snide, sarcastic political science professor who hides a secret of love that means everything to no one. As he’s playing chess with David Turzin (Chris O’Donnell), a philosophy professor and the fiancée of the youngest sister (Erika Christensen) of the educated, “upstanding” Prior family, his years on Will & Grace don’t help him much and not even later on when he’s reduced to scowling and being a dark shade of wallpaper.
But the real crux of the story is within the Prior family, for whom happier times have not come, not in childhood and apparently not at this university. The three women (also Maria Bello and Mary Stuart Masterson), a former teaching assistant to their father (Tony Goldwyn), their brother Andrew (Alessandro Nivola) and his trashy-looking fiancée (Elizabeth Banks, who relishes the role), all gather for the birthday party of Irene, the aforementioned youngest sister, which swings into bitterness as soon as Marcia (Maria Bello) verbally whales on her soon-to-be sister-in-law with the truth of how and why she met Andrew.
Bello has always been an actress to play downtrodden women with some anger in their souls, unresolved days and unresolved years sitting heavily on them. As Marcia, she’s the showpiece, with the loudest voice, with the heaviest sentences, and the most to bear, compared to her sisters who never had the threat of molestation over their heads whenever “Father” appeared. It’s what drives her to be even more defensive and later protective when she’s threatened in any way.
Marcia and Olga (Mary Stuart Masterson) see Irene as the innocence of the family, though as it is seen, there’s nothing innocent, even in Irene’s almost babyish beauty. It turns out that she uses crystal meth and collapses near the elevators on the ground floor of her apartment building, to the fright of David. Now here’s what’s hard to fathom. In the hospital, Gary gives David guff about following Irene home and David claims that he just wanted to see her home safely. But with the kiss between David and Irene after she arrives at the lounge, why would it matter and what risk is entailed by David denying the obvious? Though if they had walked to her apartment building together, and the door to the building hadn’t separated them when she collapsed, there wouldn’t have been such a fuss over such triviality or maybe David just needs a slightly bigger set of balls, two preferably.
This is what tends to happen in the midst of watching these sisters argue (Olga contributes to the dysfunction as the more masculine sister who bites down on her emotions and swallows hard), in seeing Rip Torn as Dr. Chebrin, a fairly useless witness to this drama, but a decidedly welcome sight just to listen to him affect a deep accent that makes him look quieter and more homely than any of his past roles. It’s the dialogue that covers all ills during the more problematic moments. It’s the kind of music I’d put in my CD player, but when the speeches and snippiness stop, the actions of the characters are troublesome, especially at the end when one of the sisters ignores the outdoor melee and plays the piano, though it seems impossible for her to regress, considering what happened to her before. In his quest for eloquent, spiky-heeled dialogue that bangs on all the right emotions in any scene, Alfieri has forgotten that his fictional men and women aren’t merely receptacles for words. They also move, they walk around, they have faces, and they are remade anew with each scene, with more weighing heavily on them. He makes the characters’ actions seem even more illogical than some of them already are.
Many films have already tread through the gloomy garden paths that “The Sisters” takes. But it confirms that watching Maria Bello act in many guises is one of the great pleasures of the movies. And to think that she once co-starred with Scott Speedman in “Duets.” Thankfully, times do change. The DVD includes an audio commentary by director Arthur Allan Seidelman (whose direction makes everything look just the right way, placing everything so carefully so as not to disturb the dramatic sequences) and Alfieri, who both quietly observe all that’s put before them, with comments about this and that, casting, and the fact also that while the play takes place in New York, they chose Eugene, Oregon for filming. Finally, someone understands that not all drama of the world is in New York. Everyone has problems in New York, but drama can also be magnified in smaller locations, like the university in Eugene. Sometimes that’s better, without tall buildings getting in the way.