Theatre yesterday and today



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If you are unfamiliar with Brian Friel, it is a situation that needs to be remedied. This master Irish playwright, born in 1929 in a town called Knockmoyle, and who died on October 2nd of last year, was the author of more than thirty plays. He was considered by many to be one of the world's leading dramatists in his lifetime, and his work will endure as long as there are stages for them to be performed.

Brian Friel photographed near his home in Ireland by Bobby Hanvey.

We are lucky at the moment to have one of his plays that New York has never seen before. Afterplay, written by Friel in 2002, is in previews at the Irish Repertory Theatre on West 22nd Street in Manhattan. It is surprising it has never been produced here, in that almost all of Friel's works have found their way to New York stages at one time or another (particularly at Irish Rep). It's a sixty-five minute one-act that delightfully gives Friel free reign to riff on Anton Chekhov, one of his greatest influences. The conceit of Afterplay is his taking one character from Three Sisters and one from Uncle Vanya and putting them together in the same demure dining room of a somewhat seedy Moscow hotel. Picking up twenty years after we left them in their respective plays, Andrey Prozorov is still the sad brother of his three sisters, Olga, Masha and Irina: a lost and lonely man. Sonya Serebriakova, remains more than ever the reclusive niece of her beloved Uncle Vanya (now deceased), still unable to put her own needs first, having never moved beyond her infatuation with the charismatic and unattainable Dr. Astrov.

Those same lifetime habits come back to haunt them in the chance meeting Friel provides them in Afterplay. Nothing very much happens, but everything happens, which is the essence of Chekhov. It's quite perfect as a one-act and it left me deeply satisfied. Since it's still in previews, it's really not supposed to be reviewed yet, but since I'm not a critic, I can't imagine it would do any harm to get the word out now that it is a marvelous entertainment, especially if you know the Chekhov plays upon which these characters were first introduced.

And if sounds more gloomy than it is, again, that is what makes both men's work so invigorating (at least to me). I know there are people that never want to sit through another Chekhov play for the rest of their lives. I heard from a few when I wrote so favorably of my feelings about The Cherry Orchard in a recent column. Personally, I can't get enough of the intricate mix of comedy and drama his plays portray, and similarly, it's the way I feel about Friel. His masterwork, Dancing at Lughnasa, is as Chekhovian as an Irish play will ever get. One of the actors from that 1992 the Tony Award-winning production, Dearbhla Molly, plays Sonya in Afterplay. She is joined by Dermot Crowley as Andrey, who starred in Friel's Translations, when it was revived on Broadway in 2007 in a Manhattan Theatre Club Production. Both are superb and bring layers of pain, yearning and yes—comedy—to their roles.

Enamored as he was of Chekhov, Friel wrote his own adaptations of Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, which added his own particular Irish take to the playwright's work. I have never seen these translations performed, but I would imagine that he would find a way for the language to soar that isn't always the case with Chekhov. There's poetry in them, for sure. However, the Russian language is a hard one to get right when it comes to adaptation. It's far beyond my pay grade, but as I understand it, people skilled in both languages complain often about various translations of novels such as Anna Karenina or with how plays by Turgenev and Gorky are mishandled.

Although the continuation of Andrey and Sonya's stories are entirely of Friel's imagination, they feel true to Chekhov, which is why the play works. Always looking for the comedy in the tragic lives of unremarkable people, Chekhov was consistent in not allowing convenient outs for his characters. Often doomed to their own self-inflicted pain, he saw the folly in that, and therefore the comedy. It's not an American outlook, which is why even though his plays have been done all across the United States for more than a century, they are very tough for American actors and directors to get right. With Afterplay, it's a pleasure to luxuriate in Friel's dark Irish views on life, love and happiness, which I believe fit Chekhov's own. Both playwrights rarely let their characters off the hook. Inertia, by way of an unwillingness to to change their circumstances, is where their spotlights shine. An interest in the choices people make, sometimes to the point of self-destruction, hold fascinations that have proven the lifeblood of so much of their work.

Brian Friel (circa 1980s)

Afterplay has been directed by Joe Dowling, who has spent a lifetime interpreting Friel's plays, lucky enough to have worked side by side with the playwright on some original productions of his works. Dowling has also honed a fine American sensibility to his directing in his twenty year stewardship as Artistic Director of one of the finest regional theatre institutions in the country, the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.

All of which makes a visit to the Irish Rep to see what magic is taking place on their tiny second stage, down a long flight of stairs and into the basement of their recently renovated space on West 22nd Street. It's well worth the trip.

If you would like to comment on any of these posts, please do so below. I look forward to hearing from you.