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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 2, 2016

Dearbhla Molloy and Dermot Crowley
Photo by Carol Rosegg

They're so close, you could reach out and touch them: that old couple at the next table, at once unknown and familiar. Both look as though they've endured times no one ever should, and seen tragedies beyond human description, yet they're just feet away from you. Do they want your contact? Or are they satisfied with each other? For that matter, are they even aware—on the deepest level possible—the other is there, or, for each of them, is that ever-more-eroding self all there is and all there can be? So many of these kinds of questions are raised about the two people at the center of Afterplay, which just opened at the Irish Repertory Theatre, it can be easy to forget that they're not really mysteries at all.

That's because, on either a figurative or a literal level, you know this pair quite well. If you can't personally relate to their trials of opportunities lost, relationships withered, and potential squandered—and if you can't, congratulations—you'll likely recognize the figures themselves as Andrey Prozorov, the brother from The Three Sisters, and Sonya Serebriakova, the spinster from Uncle Vanya. Yes, Friel has imagined what would happen if two of Anton Chekhov's most prized also-rans actually met each other, in a Moscow café in the 1920s, some 20 years after the events of their respective plays took their life-diminishing toll.

If the setup is improbable, conceptually it's rather less far-fetched. Friel (who died last year) approached his plays much as Chekhov did, unlocking rich theatricality from the plight of everyday men and women facing extraordinary obstacles, if with typically more optimistic undertones. (Whether he knew it or not, Chekhov was predicting the Russian Revolution; Friel wrote within, and about, a considerably different political structure.) Factor in that Friel even did his own adaptation of both of the plays from which these characters hail, and it makes sense that he'd want to filter them even more directly through his unique sensibility.

That's what we get, with a Sonya (Dearbhla Molloy) and an Andrey (Dermot Crowley) searching for ways to connect with each other, when the possibility of such a thing ought to have long been dimmed by time. But the play represents for each of them a second (third? hundredth?) chance, as, when we meet them, they are reconvening after an encounter the previous evening at which they were not entirely truthful. Even now, though, they are struggling to come to grips to explain—and accept—who they really are. All he's willing to admit is that he's playing in the orchestra for a production of La Bohème; she is sifting through the remains of the estate Vanya left after dying from a stroke.

To what extent even these wispy facts may be believed becomes an issue as the conversation continues, and it becomes more and more difficult for them to obscure the lasting impact of their lost loves and aspirations. If they've achieved a new level of awareness, at least as applied to the other ("That's not how you live your life, is it? What stupid dreams are you waiting to be realized?", Andrey barks at one point), that only gets them so far; they're lodged in their own pasts, too, and won't be able to free themselves without help that, it appears, is not forthcoming.

Their new plights, and ways of dealing with them (or not, as the case may be) show just how dangerous and limiting Chekhov's precepts can be if carried to their logical conclusion, but also how it's never necessarily too late to change. That Sonya and Andrey could find each other, and are willing to open up (however little) upon meeting a kindred spirit, kindles a spark of hope that Friel has no trouble utilizing as his own dramatic fuel, while in no way downplaying or rewriting the raw material Chekhov has given him.

Molloy and Crowley don't either, and they're both superb at bridging the gap between two quintessential playwrights of two far-removed countries. She brings a touch of the stalwart matriarch to Sonya, while always letting you see how ill-fitting on her that skin is. Crowley, on the other hand, wears his lies well—so well, wouldn't you know it, that he brings Andrey to a slow crumple beneath their weight. You see, from two separate but related angles, how they're forced into an acceptance they've been dodging for as long as they can remember, but, not long after, you also see why that's maybe not the worst imaginable thing.

It works as well as it does in no small part because director Joe Dowling has so supercharged the intimacy, even to the point of coaxing out of John Lee Beatty a spectacular set that transforms the Irish Rep's tiny Studio Theatre into a cozy-suffocating barroom that simultaneously evokes epic lushness and destitute dreams. You're with Sonya and Andrey in more ways than one, and being just feet from them heightens the feeling of their anguish being not that unusual a fixture in the human condition. Afterplay needs treatment like this, despite its exceedingly short length (barely an hour). This is ultimately a one-joke play that becomes more and more unsupportable in its thinness as its gag is explored. Without a production and actors operating at the highest level, it would seem a lark more deserving of your laughs than your concerns. Even with them, as here, it's teetering on the edge.

But it doesn't fall off, because Dowling, Molloy, and Crowley are determined to find enough truth in it to keep it upright. This links them even more with Sonya and Andre, who are trying to do the same and succeeding, if only because, after a lifetime of failure, they're running out of other options. Would these two actually end as they do here? Probably not. But it's nice to believe they receive the second chance they deserve, and, as written by Friel and presented in this production, you can't help but hunger for them to get it.

Through November 6
W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre at The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street between Avenue of the Americas and Seventh Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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