I had a chance last week (in blessed air conditioning) to see a rehearsal of the Quotidian Theatre Company’s upcoming production of Brian Friel’s Afterplay. The show is visually exquisite; the acting quiet, compelling, and solid. No surprises there: Quotidian is really good at this sort of thing; Jack Sbarbori, the director, and his cast have matters well in hand. But Afterplay includes an eye-opener that (for me, at least) makes this seldom-performed one-act play worth a special look.
This is a two-person play – at least, it has just two characters on stage: Andrey Sergeyevich Prozorov (David Dubov) and Sonya Aleksandrovna Serebryakova (Michele Osherow). If you’re up on your Chekhov, you will identify Andrey as the ineffectual violin-playing brother of the three Prozorov sisters, and Sonya as the dutiful, long-suffering niece of the ineffectual Uncle Vanya.
Afterplay places these two in 1920’s Moscow – post-Revolution, but not yet in the clutches of full-blown Communism. Both are well into their mature years: Andrey having raised a family, not too successfully, and still playing violin, though not under circumstances he would prefer; Sonya still attempting to hold the Serebryakov estate together, years after the death of her dear, feckless uncle, and still yearning for unattainable forms of love.
By the way, do you need to know the Chekhov plays to understand Afterplay? Definitely not. Andrey and Sonya are compelling in their own right, with lives that have taken turns Chekhov might not have anticipated. Their histories (backstories, in theatre jargon) are in nice proportion to their situations – sufficient to illuminate character, but not so dominant as to overwhelm the matters at hand.
Now for the eye-opener.
There is an entity (a third man, if you will) whose presence is palpable in Afterplay. It is the playwright himself, Brian Friel, who lays on touches of color with the delicacy and assurance of an Impressionist, giving the actors abundant opportunities to create their characters in just the same way. I am far from an authority on Friel (I’ve appeared in two of his plays, seen a few others), but I suspect this is one of his best. He begins a story with a single detail – brown bread, dripping eaves, skin rashes – and transforms it into a life narrative, drawing the listener in with irresistible effect. Sbarbori and his cast are all over this.
The setting is a café. Actually, nowadays we would probably call it a cafeteria, in the European style, where you pick up your entrée and make your way toward an imperious cashier who dispenses bread with grudging precision and surveys the establishment like a gorgon (Friel’s word, not mine) – one of those ominous figures that hang off the buttresses of medieval cathedrals and survey the fevered doings of humanity below.
Two people meet (actually, they had met the previous evening, shared a meal, and conversed agreeably, but had largely forgotten all that until their second meeting, which begins the play). They navigate the niceties and take up their stories. And this is where it gets good.
Under Sbarbori’s direction, Osherow and Dubov and Friel set a firm, unhurried pace (the brown bread has a lot to do with this), then take us through a slalom course of explanations, amendments, and adjustments, each one prefaced by the tiniest of transitions. One sample: when Andrey gets up, goes to the samovar for tea (risking the sight line of the gorgon), Sonya watches to be sure that his gaze is elsewhere, then reaches into her bag for… something… what? Ah… really! The details are delicious.
So are the course changes, each one prefaced by a well-placed euphemism, explaining that the story just told was a… well… a lie. But nobody uses that word. Everything is understated; the pace unhurried, like a drive through eye-filling gardens on one of those magnificent estates that the family can no longer afford to keep up, that is now hired out for weddings, or funerals. But this is not a wedding or a funeral. We are not at a high – or low – point in these two lives; we are simply at a crossroads. She is in Moscow to discuss financial arrangements related to the estate that she still owns and the livelihood that it tenuously supports; he is here for a longer stay, necessitated by a decision made much earlier, and lived out day by day, visit by visit, arrangement by arrangement, bribe by bribe.
What happens in the café brings into play (as good theatre often does) the intersecting fortunes of people’s lives. They tell their stories, amend them; become aware of each other, consider new possibilities, reach a decision, amend it, and finally leave. That’s it. The gorgon at the counter would never notice that anything had happened – except perhaps that her brown bread inventory was diminished. But that’s how gorgons think. For people with intersecting lives, it’s different.
Quotidian Theatre Company’s production of Afterplay will be presented in tandem with A Little Trick, a new memory play about lost love translated and adapted from Anton Chekhov’s short story of the same name. The production runs July 20 – August 19. Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm, with one added 2pm performance on Saturday, August 18. All performances are held at The Writer’s Center: 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD 20815. There is ample parking across the street (free on weekends), and the theatre is just five blocks from the Bethesda Metro Station on the red line. Tickets are $25, or $20 for students or seniors, paid for at the door by cash or check, please, or call (301) 816-1023. There is more information here.
Steve LaRocque has been active in the greater Washington DC area since 1994 as a performer, director, and playwright. He is a charter member of The Quotidian Theatre Company.