What do you get when you cross an iconic play by Anton Chekhov with those of Samuel Beckett, by way of Christopher Durang and his puckish touch? Such a stew would probably resemble Deborah Zoe Laufer’s The Three Sisters of Weehawken, an amiably nutty and ultimately touching new work now receiving its world premiere at Florida Atlantic University’s Theatre Lab.
As her title suggests, Laufer is cribbing from Chekhov’s tale of a trio of female siblings from the Russian hinterlands who yearn to travel to the big city — Moscow. In her play, however, Irina (the pretty one), Masha (the smart one) and Olga (the hard worker) live in a New Jersey bedroom community and pine for Manhattan. (Cue the communal wistful sighs every time their Mecca is mentioned.) They talk a lot about going there, but they never take a step toward it, just like Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
Yes, it will help your enjoyment of Laufer’s literary send-up if you get her theatrical references. The image of stolid eldest sister Olga engulfed in boxes of Chinese carryout is amusing in its own right, but far funnier if you recognize that Laufer is invoking dirt mound-encased Winnie from Beckett’s Happy Days.
We observe the sisters in seven snapshots from 1958 to 2016, always on May 5, Irina’s saint day, when sister-in-law Natasha arrives like clockwork with a present for the attractive, but empty-headed youngest sib. What begins in absurdist joke mode eventually turns dark, as the play asks us to contemplate aging, death and life’s purpose.
Helping to launch the play is a terrific ensemble of area actresses. Elizabeth Dimon’s Olga is a child-hating teacher, at least she is until caught pilfering Ritalin from the school nurse. As Masha, Niki Fridh is a black-clad art-for-art’s-sake painter, somberly churning out hundreds of black-on-black portraits of Irina (Betsy Graver), a ballerina wannabe. As they all sigh over going to Manhattan but remain inert, Natasha (Jessica Farr) enrolls in NYU, earns a degree and becomes a psychiatrist in New York, while the three women most in need of her services remain in Weehawken.
Although the evening runs a mere 90 intermissionless minutes, it feels longer. Laufer directs the production, demonstrating staging skill and an ability to bring out her particular brand of comedy. Still, the thought gnaws that an outside eye might have been able to prune back the script to a more optimum length.
Nevertheless, Laufer — one of Lou Tyrrell’s most felicitous finds from his Florida Stage days — continues to amuse and provoke theatergoers with plays like The Three Sisters of Weehawken. Unlike Olga, Masha and Irina, it just may be Manhattan-bound.
THE THREE SISTERS OF WEEHAWKEN, FAU Theatre Lab, Parliament Hall on FAU campus, 777 Glades Rd., Boca Raton. Through Nov. 6. $35. 561-297-6124.