- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2005

What happens to characters after the curtain falls? Do they wait in limbo until the next performance of their play? Or do they go on to lead lives richly independent of the playwright’s imagination? This latter conceit is the delightful premise of “Afterplay.”

In Brian Friel’s slight but winsome play, two Anton Chekhov characters meet in a Moscow cafe and swap life stories. Sonya (Nancy Robinette) is the constant niece from “Uncle Vanya,” and Andrey (Edward Gero) is the put-upon brother from “Three Sisters.”

It is 1921, 20 years after the end of the action in Chekhov’s plays. Since then, Russia has undergone a seismic revolution, entering a brave new world that is at once harsh and hopeful. It is a period of idealism and big ideas, but Sonya and Andrey seem caught in another era, gentle and slightly dusty relics of a Russia where aristocrats ruled and serfs toiled.

Mr. Friel sets “Afterplay” in the glass gazebo of a Moscow cafe that has plainly seen better days, an otherworldly setting delicately rendered by Debra Booth in smudgy glass and beams overlaid with verdigris. Even the autumn leaves piled by the glass walls seem like antiques.

Sonya and Andrey could use some sprucing up, as well.

Their clothes are sturdy but worn, their leather satchels creased with age. Their elaborate manners and sly flirtations are also survivors from the previous century.

Even when their tongues are loosened by vodka, they manage to be tipsy with refinement. The pair pass a cold evening with conviviality and warmth, telling each other what has happened to their families during the past two decades. As the vodka flows, Andrey confesses that he has told his cafe companion a few minor “fables,” some sweet lies about his true profession and other details. By the end of the night, Sonya has admitted that she, too, has fibbed a little.

How have Sonya and Andrey fared? The truth is, not so well.

Unable to make a complete break with the past, the two are suspended in a dreamlike stasis, unable to take decisive action. And so they wait.

In the meantime, they have their stories, and the possibility of a friendship and perhaps more. Yet Sonya is so caught up in her family histories that she cannot conceive of independence. Terrified of the unknown future, she spurns Andrey’s invitation to romance.

Director Joy Zinoman hangs a filigreed sadness over “Afterplay,” giving it a decorous poignancy. There is no place for Sonya and Andrey in post-revolutionary Russia, and so they drift into tiny, neglected pockets of the country where they can still pretend there are grand estates, summer houses and devoted servants.

The play could descend into twee preciousness in lesser hands than those of Miss Robinette and Mr. Gero. Miss Robinette listens and reacts with such openness and vivacity you can see the whole play dancing across her features.

Mr. Gero plays Andrey with an endearing clumsiness coupled with Old World politesse. He appears eager to embrace the new world, but something keeps jerking him back into the past. Mr. Gero also plays drunkenness subtly, with studied gestures like those of someone trying their best to look sober.

“Afterplay” is a work of sorrow and ruin, but the conversation that flows between the two characters is as melodic as a duet between violin and balalaika.

***

WHAT: “Afterplay,” by Brian Friel

WHERE: Metheny Theatre, Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through April 17.

TICKETS: $35 to $48

PHONE: 202/332-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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