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Theatre: Afterplay (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Derbhla Molloy, Dermot Crowley. Photo: Carol Rosegg

A man and a woman, both of a certain age, meet in a seedy Moscow café one night in the 1920s. They enjoyed their conversation the evening before -- even if the main topics were chapped lips and chilblains -- and they are looking forward to some company. Both are visitors to Moscow. She owns a country estate that is hopelessly mired in debt and has spent a few frustrating days with bankers and government officials, trying to sort out the mess. He says he is a violinist at the opera, where La Bohème is about to open. (The conductor, from Munich, is a tyrant, he confides.) If they seem familiar, well should they: She is Sonya Serebriakova, the tragic spinster of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. He is Andrey Prozorov, whose three unhappy sisters you may have read about, too.

At this juncture, you may find yourself, as did I, fighting the concept on which Afterplay is founded, fearing that the playwright, the late Brian Friel, has succumbed to the same impulse by which Hollywood turns classic works into franchises, endlessly rehashing the same overfamiliar material. One of the glories of classic works is that they feel complete in themselves, with no further explication necessary. (When contemporary writers try to add their own two cents to great works, the results are usually superfluous; three decades on, I'm still getting over A Doll's Life, the musical sequel to A Doll's House.) But Friel was no purveyor of audience-baiting gimmicks, and his sensibility has led many to call him the Irish Chekhov. If Afterplay, which can be enjoyed as an accomplished late-career chamber piece, proves anything, it's that these two playwrights, who lived decades apart, saw the world in remarkably similar ways.

Indeed, Afterplay portrays Sonya and Andrey as profoundly solitary people. Andrey's wife, Natasha, is long dead, he says, adding that he still lives in the town where he grew up, coming to Moscow for musical gigs; his sisters' long-held plans for him, that he become a famous academic, came to naught. Sonya recounts how she competently managed the family estate, even when her young and beautiful stepmother, Yelena, returned after the death of her husband (and Sonya's father). But poor Vanya, Sonya's unhappy uncle, fell prey to dementia and insisted on taking charge, thus running the place into the ground. At least, she says, she has the friendship of Michael -- better known to theatregoers as Dr. Astrov. With his reverence for nature and selfless dedication to his profession, Michael is tantamount to a saint, she adds -- when he isn't totally drunk.

As it happens, both Sonya and Andrey are accomplished liars, and as the night wears on and a bottle of vodka is consumed, the truth slowly comes to light. Part of the fascination of Afterplay lies in how Friel has fashioned long-term fates for Vanya, Yelena, Astrov, Masha, Natasha, and other famous characters that feel totally consonant with what we've always known about them. You won't be surprised to learn that, generally speaking, things haven't gone terribly well; you may be surprised at how deftly and touchingly the playwright has envisioned Sonya and Andrey in later life, coping with irreplaceable losses and facing increasingly dark futures, yet still finding time for a couple of drinks and a flirtation.

Friel's script is catnip for actors, and, under Joe Dowling's remarkably detailed direction, those fine Irish actors Dermot Crowley and Dearbhla Molloy form a double portrait of middle-aged survivors, clinging to the wreckage of their lives and getting by on a strictly rationed subsistence diet of love. (Their Irish accents, slightly jarring at first, come to seem thoroughly at home in this Slavic environment.) Molloy's briskly candid manner as Sonya explains her fiscal problems, gives way to a confession that the time she spent nursing her dying uncle were "the most serene and fulfilled days of my life." Far more painful is her admission of love for Astrov and her account of how their relationship has played out over three decades. As Andrey, Crowley's friendly, forward manner -- his shabby personal grooming oddly contrasted with the tuxedo that he mysteriously wears to music rehearsals -- masks a number of sorrows, including a long slide into alcoholism that left him estranged from everyone he once professed to love. Speaking with barely disguised scorn about his sisters, who, in their late forties, are still dreaming of starting over again in Moscow, he suggests that the greatest error one can make is "to live your life in the waiting room," but the only difference is that he and Sonya have consciously watched their chances at happiness slip through their hands. Theirs is the dubious consolation of awareness.

Afterplay has been staged in the tiny, cavern-like downstairs theatre at Irish Repertory, a venue that proves to be oddly suitable to the occasion, the mottled red walls and low-hanging chandelier of John Lee Beatty's scenic design setting the right mood, aided by the dim atmosphere of Michael Gottlieb's lighting, and by Fabio Toblini's costumes, which reek of genteel poverty. M. Florian Staab's sound design frames the action in a lovely classical piano étude.

In a funny way, Afterplay made me think of another great playwright, Samuel Beckett. There's something oddly moving about the fortitude displayed by Sonya and Andrey in the face of terrible personal reversals, and even more so about the tiny glimmer of hope that still flickers after Sonya seemingly slams the door on any future involvement. Their endurance is remarkable; as Beckett might have said, They can't go on, they'll go on. -- David Barbour


(6 October 2016)

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