Brian Friel’s concept for Afterplay, insightfully directed by Joe Dowling at the Irish Repertory Theatre until 6 November, is an interesting one. Inspired by Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya, Friel spins one character from each play, Andrey from The Three Sisters and Sonya from Uncle Vanya, 20 years into the future beyond the plays’ original times. It is enjoyable to see how Friel has allowed these characters to whisper to his intuition about where they might be after Chekhov’s ink dried on the last pages of both plays. Friel imagines their progress through two decades, changing circumstantially but not really transforming themselves.
Friel’s exercise is a human character study that is both witty and poignant. He sets Afterplay in a café in Moscow where Sonya (a subtle and searing performance by Dearbhla Molloy) and Andrey (the effervescent and profoundly engaging Dermot Crowley), now single and middle-aged, are drawn to each other out of a desperate inner loneliness. Their conversations begin with superficial details about their lives, their troubles, and their conflicts, which have expanded from their easily identifiable Chekhovian characterizations. For those not familiar with the Chekhov plays, Friel has seamlessly included details not actually necessary to appreciate the core of the characters as he reveals their development during their conversations.
We discover that both characters lie to each other and themselves. Both are stuck in conditions of their own making. Both gradually reveal how they have devolved as gracefully as their perspectives and imaginations have allowed. Yet Friel’s characterizations are humorous. And in their very revelations he acutely and realistically embodies Sonya’s and Andrey’s humanity so that we find them to be likable; indeed, we realize we are seeing aspects of ourselves, though our external circumstances may be very different.
The beauty of Friel’s writing is that he allows us to intuit where the characters’ revelations are heading, yet we are gratified that the tiny fictions they initially adhered to fall away as their conversation becomes more heartfelt and intimate and their relationship within the span of the play obviously deepens and becomes richer. We understand that they feel comfortable enough to shed their masks and outer skins and disclose a bit of their souls to each other. Thus they speak of their loneliness, their hunger for a drop of compassion and empathy, their lack of connection to the community of individuals whom they will perhaps return to – a community to which they have adhered despite the trauma it has caused them, a trauma they ought to finally confront and from which they should heal.
But will the budding relationship between these two remarkable individuals take them to the next level, to an opportunity to seek wholeness? Do they have any future together, as we may anticipate? Or does the uncertainty of their profound and wryly humorous meeting spiral inward into the stasis from which they came, before they sat down and broke some bread and shared some vodka?
The mystery is typical Friel. His brilliance is in constructing a lucid meeting of two minds and beings that we might know very well – because we empathize with their inability to get past those inner elements that require tremendous work to overcome and extirpate. Sometimes, such work requires an ineluctable amount of risk, entering an unpredictable region that requires skill, imagination and an innovative spirit to navigate. It is not impossible, but it is challenging as the sunset of one’s life approaches.
All of this the able director Joe Dowling and the superb cast, Dermot Crowley (Andrey) and Dearbhla Molloy (Sonya), lay bare in this beautifully rendered production whose concision and acutely threaded authenticity are a breath of fresh air. With well-appointed sets, costumes, and staging, Dowling has aided the actors to readily tease out the symbolism, the comedy, the pathos. We are startled at the felt acknowledgement that oftentimes, as Andrey and Sonya demonstrate, our lives are fraught with excuses lightly made, falsehoods sweetly nurtured, deceptions avidly embraced. And all so that we may retain what is familiar, as rotten or painful as it is. That, of course, is what is both comic and tragic. In this iteration of Friel’s genius in Afterplay, it is what is marvelous.
Afterplay runs at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York City until the sixth of November.