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The New York Times - November 17, 2002


A Tale of Two Moscows



Richard Termine for The New York Times

Marin Hinkle, left, Jessica Hecht and Alicia Goranson play siblings in "The Fourth Sister," set in Moscow and directed by Lisa Peterson.


A LONGSIDE the Moscow River, near Gorky Park, positioned several feet above the highway, stands a cutout of a life-size man in a business suit, hands forward, ready to jump. Under him reads an inscription: "Before you jump, think again. Take a Stresstab."
In our age of globalization, perhaps the one thing that truly connects the whole world, more than the Internet, pop culture or so-called free trade, is that sinking feeling, that urge to jump. Russia has been depressed for centuries; today, with terrorism, a sputtering economy and cultural anomie, America is catching up.

My new play, "The Fourth Sister," was inspired by Chekhov's "Three Sisters," but it is neither a fictional continuation, nor a new version, nor a pastiche of Chekhov. It's merely an ironic allusion to his play and points out a few depressing steps the world has made since Chekhov gazed upon it.

The underlying conviction of Chekhov's characters was that, although their own world was filled with trials and suffering, their children's would be a better one. It was easier for Chekhov to have some hope for the future at the end of the 19th century, when the concepts of truth, honor, commitment and love were seriously embraced. (Sometimes too seriously, since Russian officers at that time had duels when they offended each other, and shot themselves in the head when women rejected them.)

But today's Moscow has very little to do with Chekhov's Moscow. There are no more troikas and very few lofty dreams. I was in Moscow about four years ago, when Russia was preparing for war with Chechnya. I walked through the center of Moscow with Svetlana, the 14-year-old daughter of the driver from the Ministry of Culture who was chauffeuring me around the city. We passed a disco called Hammer and Sickle; Giorgio Armani's store; a Mafia-looking restaurant, Up and Down; a dealer for Rolls-Royces; and Afghan vets lining the streets, panhandling. These war heroes had medals but no legs. They gloomily looked on as policemen, who used to chase criminals, saluted Mafiosos lounging in black stretch limos. In the 21st century, a fifth substance, money, triumphs over the four ancient elements of fire, water, earth and air.

The day before, a bomb exploded in Moscow. The Chechens were blamed. But people whispered that it was actually the K.G.B., since it wanted to justify the impending war and deflect attention from the nation's poverty. Svetlana shook with anger. As several ambulances and armored cars passed us, she furiously told me that she read recently that the greatest artist of the 20th century was Yves St. Laurent. She said: "No way! Any idiot knows that Versace was the one."

Maybe Nietzsche was right when he said that humor is the epitaph on the grave of a painful memory. I wrote this play out of despair — maybe that's why it's funny. One of the fathers of the theater of the absurd, Samuel Beckett, after surviving both wars, decided that Godot will never come and that nothing is funnier than misfortune. Though Chekhov lived in the 19th century, this sentiment wasn't foreign to him, either, except his laughter has always been filled with compassion.


Photo by: Richard Termine for NYT

Janusz Glowacki


During Communist times, when I still lived in Warsaw, the Minister of Culture censored a comedy I wrote. When I asked why, he explained that he realized that laughter was necessary, and that he himself laughed every day for 10 minutes — with a stopwatch in hand — for the purpose of mental hygiene. But he professed that there are only two kinds of laughter: constructive (or pro-Communist) and destructive (or anti-Communist). I hope "The Fourth Sister" falls into a third category.

In "The Fourth Sister," which opens on Thursday Off Broadway at the Vineyard Theater, the most recurring line is "I'm depressed," a seemingly strange line for a comedy. In fact, I'm not sure if my play is a comedy or a tragedy, but the difference between them is sometimes nettlesome to define.

You see, one character in the play, a retired general who once fought in Berlin and Kabul, tries to get work as a model to pay for his youngest daughter's dance lessons. The oldest daughter is the sex-pet of a married politician who hates Jews, though he himself is half-Jewish. The middle daughter finished law school and now feeds animals in the circus. Just a few years earlier, they knew what to expect from life. Now, they are at a loss.

The third and youngest daughter, Tania, has a better setup. Although she confuses Dostoyevsky with Versace and Bulgakov with Britney Spears, she has a moral guiding force in her life: the movie "Pretty Woman" with Julia Roberts. Back in the old days, prostitutes pretended to be virgins. In our times, virgins pretend to be prostitutes.

Tania once went to a museum and the only painting that caught her attention was one by Marc Chagall in which a boy hangs upside-down with one shoe. Perhaps it reminded her of something. Tania doesn't get emotional over the death of 30 women and children burned alive by a car bomb. But that doesn't mean she's callous. She just probably already used up all her tears by crying for five days, along with the entire planet, over the death of Princess Di. I read in one newspaper that 9/11 yanked at the hearts of Europeans almost as tragically as the death of the Princess. In "The Fourth Sister," naturalism blends with surrealism, and here too, the difference between them has become rather impossible to define.

Chekhov had doubts about whether he had the moral privilege to write, since he couldn't even answer the basic question: "How should we live?"

In my play, the retired Russian general asks far simpler questions: "Who rules here? Where is the money? How will it all end?" And no one is in a hurry to answer him.

I decided that my play about Moscow would begin in Hollywood, at the Academy Awards ceremony, which is broadcast all over the world, and has become part of our new global inter-connectedness, along with CNN. CNN is watched by those who blow up embassies and those who protect embassies, those who take hostages and those who rescue them. An Egyptian writer I met in New York said he was addicted to American television. He knew more than I did about O. J. Simpson and Washington interns, but he was truly amazed to find out that there were some religious New Yorkers.

Others have no access to television, like the children of Moscow who live in sewers and soiled public restrooms. Those kids are usually missing all their teeth, but they know how to use guns. Today, kids all over take aim at an early age. Those in Moscow shoot to get a pack of Marlboros. At the Mafia's request, they kill people they have never seen before. Since they are children, they sometimes make mistakes, killing the wrong people. But actually, the Mafia itself also messes up on occasion because it is overworked.

In Moscow, many photographers and film directors roam the streets, documenting stories about the Mafia and child prostitution. I put one of these directors in my play. He received an Oscar for the gripping candidness of his documentary, "The Children of Moscow," about child prostitution in Russia. Only, in today's times, the difference between truth and falsehood has become almost impossible to define.

I brought back home the two most popular toys in Russia. One was given to me by my driver, Svetlana's father. It was Wanka Wstanka, a kind of Russian superman. Push him to the side and he always springs back into his standing, ready position. "Watch out," the driver said, "nobody'll beat Russia." The second one I bought on my own. It was the famous Matrioshka, a colorful doll that holds inside of her another smaller version of herself but with a different face. Inside that smaller version, another face appears, and yet another one, and so on. I wonder what kind of face Russia will show in the coming years.

At the end of the 19th century, Chekhov wrote that Russians love the past, hate the present and fear the future. They don't realize when the future becomes the present that they hate so much and, a moment later, the past, which they miss.

For Chekhov's "Three Sisters," the magical place that gave them hope of a better life and happiness was Moscow. For me, when I lived in Warsaw during Communist times, the promised land was America. In "The Fourth Sister," the characters don't know where to go.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company


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