In “Afterplay,” Brian Friel has written a delicate, bite-sized morsel of Chekhovian drama featuring an imaginary encounter between two of Anton Chekhov’s more prominent characters some 20 years after the lights have figuratively dimmed.
The scene is a faded Moscow cafe of the 1920s where the sole customer is seated at a table fumbling nervously through papers. She is Sonya Serebriakova, the faithful niece of Uncle Vanya who, at the end of that play, was left stoically engaged in operating the farm, much in love with Dr. Astrov and coping with the turbulence left by her beautiful, self-centered stepmother, Yelena. “So what has been happening with you and the others since we last looked in?” any Chekhov aficionado might eagerly inquire, given the chance.
That opportunity comes with the next patron, a disheveled gentleman carrying a beat-up violin case. It is Andrey Prozorov, the spineless brother of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” who was known for his weakness with gambling and drink. They get to talking and, well, you know Chekhov.
The two characters, classic castoffs by their creator left floating between hope and fulfillment, were clearly inviting targets for study by Irishman Friel, a well known student of the Russian playwright.
Not surprisingly, Friel’s purpose is not to throw a life raft to either lost soul but instead to offer a plausible update within the same distinctive genre that so artfully unveils complex personalities amid laughter, tears and quiet revelation.
He does so most effectively here, thanks in large part to a trio of accomplished Chekhov veterans, director Joy Zinoman and two of D.C.’s busiest actors, Nancy Robinette and Edward Gero. Together, they bring out sensitive and engrossing portrayals within a book that sparingly doles out details, both truths and lies, from each character. References from the originals are certain to spark memories.
Debra Booth’s nicely authentic cafe set looks like it, too, sparkled in a more promising time.
The 3-year-old play is making its U.S. debut as the final bill of Studio’s “Russian Winter” season of works on Russian themes, where it benefits from the larger context that included Chekhov’s “Ivanov” and contempo views of Russian life by playwrights Oleg Bogaev and Vassily Sigarev.