by Frank Rich

The New York Times
October 31, 1980, Friday, Late City Final Edition
SECTION: Section C; Page 3, Column 1; Weekend Desk

There's an uncommonly weird experience to be had these nights at the Squat Theater's storefront headquarters on West 23d Street. Three blank-faced men, all dressed in white and all wearing spectacles, sit around smoking cigars and sipping tea spiced with vodka. In front of them is an old-fashioned prompter's box; a scratchy recording of Chopin plays in the background. As the prompter reads lines from Chekhov's ''The Three Sisters,'' the actors repeat the words in a deadpan, expressionless monotone. There is no action, no acting, no drama. There is a lot of cigar smoke - one theatergoer in the front row used a scarf as an oxygen mask - but not a hint of fire.

So what's going on here? Squat, an emigre Hungarian theatrical collective, titles the evening ''The Three Sisters,'' but surely this is not an interpretation, however iconoclastic, of Chekhov's great play. The recited lines have been haphazardly plucked from the speeches of the title characters only; without a Natasha or Vershinin, there can be no ''Three Sisters.'' Perhaps Squat simply wants us to meditate on the chosen excerpts from Chekhov's prose - the repetitions and pauses leave plenty of time for meditation -and yet that explanation doesn't make sense either. The lines are not being read in the original Russian, but in an exceptionally colorless English translation. Nor does the evening's gender inversion seem particularly at issue. The men playing Olga, Masha and Irina are bland to the point of sexlessness anyway; they don't know from camp.

Perhaps, then, the real point of this tableau vivant - or should one say tableau mort? - is to dramatize the contemporary theater's debt to Chekhov. By stripping the play down to a single, static image, maybe Squat is trying to wipe out that small boundary that separates Chekhov from Beckett. The three sisters, after all, are not so much waiting to go to Moscow as waiting for death. But this, too, doesn't wash. The genius of Chekhov and Beckett rises from their ability to find humanity in those who thrash about during the course of that terrifying wait. Squat's three sisters are pointedly lacking in such spirit. They've been stripped of humanity, of wit, of emotional context; indeed, they're already dead.

And that, I'm afraid, may bring us to the real point of the exercise. The tedium, the musty prompter, the pickled actors of Squat's ''Three Sisters'' are all, in the end, designed to condemn Chekhov as a theatrical decadent and then to bury him. Certainly Chekhov is not immune to satire - see Woody Allen's ''Love and Death'' - but he doesn't seem a particularly valid target for an avant-garde theater troupe's most withering scorn. One could understand Squat wanting to take an ax to Middleton or Congreve or even Arthur Miller, but Chekhov? This most modern of playwrights is an unlikely candidate for anyone's hit list of literary reactionaries.

It could be, too, that Squat's target is not so much Chekhov as bad productions of Chekhov, which are boring and dead and destructive. If so, that's an arcane and unnecessary mission at a time when productions of ''The Three Sisters,'' good or bad, aren't exactly proliferating. All that this tedious, truncated version of Chekhov really does is scare its audience away from a first-rate production of the daring original, when and if one should appear. Though Squat's aims may be radical, this embalmed ''Three Sisters'' is nonethless a counter-revolutionary theatrical act.

Chekhov Variation

THE THREE SISTERS, by Anton Chekhov. Presented by Squat, Budapest-New York Theater Arts Foundation Inc. At 256 West 23d Street.
Masha ..................................Peter Breznyik
Irina ....................................Peter Halasz
Olga ....................................Istvan Balint
Viola Player ...........................Yossi Gutmann
Prompter ..............................Anna Koos

GRAPHIC: Illustrations: Photo of scene from 'Three Sisters'

Copyright 1980 The New York Times Company


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