Goodman Theatre.

Santo Loquasto’s sumptuous provincial villa is impeccably detailed and awesomely spacious and elegant. His fashion-plate costumes all but create the characters. James F. Ingalls’s lighting puts sun and moon to shame. But never has a more splendid frame held an emptier canvas. Succumbing to sitcom sterility when it doesn’t erupt in histrionics, Robert Falls’s alternately broad and shallow Goodman production has little to add to a seminal play and in fact subtracts much. Chekhov worked in the half-tones that make us human–but here his poignant, unquietly desperate characters, trapped in a backwater burg where time erodes hope, are reduced to actors indulging every wretched excess, unrestrained by any directorial vision beyond traffic control. No wonder no one gets to Moscow.

In this sloppy, uneven and sometimes cartoonish revival emotions are exploited, not earned, by connect-the-dots players who can’t link lines to feelings, characters to passions, or the play to an audience. Ellen Karas’s schizoid Natasha is Joan Crawford on a bad day. Howard Witt’s drinking doctor goes directly from grumpiness to hysteria, with nothing in between. Bruce Norris turns the forlorn baron into a stand-up comic without punch lines. Zak Orth’s hapless brother is flatter than the steppes. Even the three sisters–played by Susan Bruce, Jenny Bacon, and Calista Flockhart–fall back on scenery chewing whenever mere emoting isn’t enough. Only one character escapes ridicule: Ned Schmidtke offers steady, impassioned work as idealistic Vershinin, but it’s exasperating to watch this pro work so hard to be real when everyone around him is busily eliminating the third dimension.

I made some errors in my review of Fanshen (March 24). Credit for the stage combat should go not only to Carlos Tomayo but to Debra Minghi. Max Shapiro provided the lyrics, not the music.