There's often something surprisingly young about a play that borrows from a classic. All manner of intertextual concept dramas—think of Medea Redux, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead or Smoke—share a very specific pleasure. Even in the darkest, there's something sweetly scholarly about a playwright digging through the canon, hauling out old costumes to see if they'll fit. So once we realize that Brian Friel's 2002 Afterplay is about a pair of Chekhov's characters, it suddenly seems like a beginner’s work—funny, really, considering that Friel had been past master of the stage at that point for nearly 40 years.
Friel's one-act is infinitely gentle. Nestled in the belly of the Irish Repertory Theater, John Lee Beatty's sumptuous Moscow teahouse set is lush with drapes and shabby gilt chairs and thick carpets. The sixtyish duo chatting before us are Uncle Vanya's Sonya (Dearbhla Molloy) and Andrei (Dermot Crowley) from Three Sisters, met by chance, but somehow finding themselves instantly simpatico. Thirty years on, Andrei's still a bit of a weakling, fibbing about his music career until he suddenly confesses; Sonya's still obsessed with Astrov, but her beloved estate has become a burden. Friel's imagination follows the trajectories already mapped out at the ends of the plays. The arcs that Chekhov described simply continue—into sadder, older realms.
When Friel died last year, he left a catalog of work that richly deserved its Chekhovian comparisons; his translation-adaptations are among the best, and pieces like Dancing at Lughnasa showed deep resonances between his writing and Chekhov's. Afterplay winds up as a mere atmospheric exercise by comparison, best enjoyed by those who know the sources. It is exquisitely executed, though. Joe Dowling's production gives Molloy and Crowley plenty of room to stretch, so even these miniature portraits feel lived in and real. Crowley in particular gives us a marvelous rendering of a man realizing that melancholy itself might be the grounds for a new friendship. His eyes grow confused and hopeful by turns, always ready to be disappointed. In them is the great humanist Chekhov, and volumes of Friel, too. Pity and understanding bound up together: Crowley gives us all of it in a single baffled glance.
Irish Repertory Theatre (Off Broadway). By Brian Friel. Directed by Joe Dowling. With Dearbhla Molloy and Dermot Crowley. Running time: 1hr. No intermission. Through Nov 6. Click here for full ticket and venue information.
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