02/04/2011 03:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard Open in 'Three Sisters' at the Classic Stage Company

In the Classic Stage Company's (CSC) new production of Three Sisters, a trio of women dreams of escaping their deadbeat lives in the boondocks in favor of the glitz and glamour of the big city. As they wistfully plot their futures, the ladies -- a naive romantic, a desperate housewife and a hapless old maid -- enjoy the company of male suitors from a nearby military base, only to have their hopes dashed and their visions shattered.

Anton Chekhov's famed 1901 play -- which deals with "how life ambushes you, and the way people keep looking for things rather than taking things for what they are," according to director Austin Pendleton -- opened to a packed house at the CSC's ultra-intimate East Village theater Thursday night. Featuring characters caught in loveless marriages or struggling with unattainable partners, Chekhov's portrait of a fractured Russian family doesn't require star power to resonate with modern audiences. But this off-Broadway production has the added bonus of allowing viewers to witness two big-name Hollywood actors, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard, up close and personal in finely-tuned stage deliveries.

Three Sisters Off-Broadway

Those unfamiliar with Chekhov's play and thus expecting a powerhouse performance from either actor might be surprised to learn that Three Sisters is very much an ensemble piece -- which seems an unlikely choice particularly for Gyllenhaal, who nabbed an Academy Award nomination last year for her role in Crazy Heart. "Some actors have a total instinct and ability to go back and forth between stage and screen work with ease, and Maggie and Peter are two of them," says Pendleton, who previously directed the real-life couple in a CSC production of another Chekhov play, Uncle Vanya, in 2009. "You don't have to persuade them to be ensemble players." Actress Jessica Hecht, who plays the eldest of the titular sisters, echoed those praises. "Maggie and Peter have a wonderful love for each other, but they don't exclude the other cast members in any way," said Hecht, another screen veteran whose stage résumé includes last year's Broadway revival of A View from the Bridge opposite Scarlett Johansson. "We had a shorthand pretty feel very much included in their little family."

Of his decision to cast Gyllenhaal as Masha, the unhappily married middle sister who begins an affair with Vershinin (Sarsgaard) during the course of the play, Pendleton notes, "Maggie understands a lot of things that Masha understands...they both have much of the same humor, they have a desire to live fully and they have the same capacity for heartbreak." Indeed, Gyllenhaal embodies the role delicately and with subtle grace, and her unconventional looks are well-suited for the tightly-corseted period garb. Having wooed a teenage Carey Mulligan in 2009's An Education and seduced Liam Neeson in 2004's Kinsey, Sarsgaard lends Vershinin a smugly alluring charm, though he is virtually unrecognizable under a scruffy beard. The presumably happily married Gyllenhaal and Sarsgaard seem at ease working together, though you might call their collaboration a case of art not imitating life, as an emotional confrontation between their characters in the play's third act is one of Three Sisters' most brutal scenes.

As Olga and Irina, Hecht and Juliet Rylance respectively provide fine support. The cast's biggest standout, however, is Josh Hamilton as Andrey, brother of the three Prozorov sisters. Starting off as a young, eligible bachelor on his way to a brilliant career, Andrey ends up saddled with a domineering wife (Marin Ireland) and two kids, riddled with debt and struggling with weight gain. Though he packs a punch in some of the more dramatically hefty scenes, Hamilton also ends up providing the play's few moments of comic relief, finding the quiet humor in a role to which many middle-aged men can relate.

The choice of staging Three Sisters in such a limited space lends the show an almost reality show-like feeling of voyeurism and heightens the sense of claustrophobia that the characters seem to be battling throughout the play. Scenic designer Walt Spangler deserves praise for his inventive set design, in which an enormous dining table used in the first act morphs seamlessly into a cramped attic bedroom by the third. Pendleton's choice to use Paul Schmidt's very American, colloquial translation of Chekhov's Russian text -- Andrey is even referred to as "Andy" at several points -- might be off-putting to more traditional dramatists, but ultimately proves to be a wise decision in a contemporary revival.

The play climaxes with a series of catastrophic events yet a few of Chekhov's characters maintain their optimism -- "When I think about the future, I feel better," the beleaguered Andrey declares in the third act -- which leaves the audience feeling moved rather than devastated. And while a centuries-old Russian drama might seem like an odd showcase, watching two of this generation's most acclaimed actors ditch their Hollywood personas by impressively tackling Chekhov is similarly inspiring.

The Classic Stage Company's production of Three Sisters plays through March 6.