As written by Brian Friel and performed by Babs George and Don Toner, Afterplay is a waltz of the walking wounded danced with stately grace to a beautifully elegiac tune


Larry L. King Theatre, through March 11

Running Time: 50 min

You know how it is when you see someone that you haven't seen in a long, long, long time? How you sometimes will drink in their words, their features, their expressions, eagerly absorbing all that's different about them, all that's happened to them? There's more there than merely wanting to catch up; something about time plays into it, how it works its changes on us all – physically, emotionally, spiritually. You had a sense of who that someone was once upon a time, and now you want to know what that person has done with his or her life and, perhaps more to the point, what life has done to that person.

That sort of curiosity drives Afterplay, the intriguing two-hander by Brian Friel being mounted by Austin Playhouse in its intimate second space, the newly christened Larry L. King Theatre. A man and a woman chance upon one another in a Moscow cafe, and although they don't know each other, we know them both – at least, we do if we're familiar with the dramatic works of Anton Chekhov. Both inhabit the Russian writer's plays, and Friel has granted them a second life some two decades after their stories unfolded in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters that we might glimpse what life has done to them since the curtains fell on their respective dramas. She is Sonya, Vanya's plain niece whose father married a beauty the same age as his daughter. He is Andrey, the sole brother in that family of sisters that yearned so for Moscow. They never made it, but here he is, in a worn tuxedo with a violin tucked under one arm and a bowl of cabbage soup in one hand. Her table is cluttered with papers – forms, balance sheets, and plans from the agricultural ministry for turning the failing family farm that she now runs into a more economically viable forest – but she clears them away that he might join her, and it begins: a conversation between strangers through which they introduce themselves to each other and we glean those profound changes wrought by time.

Friel may not be Russian, but he's shown a kinship with a certain Russian state of mind that Chekhov captured so feelingly; that Chekhovian sense of time, of regret, of yearning for something that might never be attainable, of our heartrending human folly and frailty, all can be seen in such Friel masterworks as Dancing at Lughnasa, Translations, Molly Sweeney, and Faith Healer. And as he's also adapted several Chekhov works himself, it's no surprise that Sonya and Andrey seem at home here. They are older than they were; their circumstances have changed, but they are still, like so many of Chekhov's people, living in a "disturbing here and now," caught between a past that has a profound hold on them and a future that offers little in the way of hope. And Friel reveals that to us in a simple, still dialogue between two people at a cafe table.

It's much like a piece of chamber music for two players – subtle and intimate, with its meaning and emotion drawn from small touches and the interplay of the artists – and Babs George, who directs as well as plays Sonya, treats it that way, keeping things simple and focused on the score, so it flows elegantly between her and her acting partner, Don Toner. The Austin Playhouse artistic director rarely treads the boards, but when he does, he always shows us an actor of considerable craft who takes relish in his roles. There's a sparkle in his Andrey's nebbishy enthusiasm and clumsy cover-ups for his harmless little fictions, but there's a melancholy, too, behind his eyes when the truths of Andrey's life come to light; Toner brings poignancy to this faded mouse of a man. He also plays well off George, whose Sonya is a haunted woman, her fatigued eyes revealing the toll taken by years of aloneness and dreaming of a love just beyond her reach. The actress masterfully conveys such sorrow, such longing, in the most delicate moves – a subtle rubbing of hands, a glance away, an abrupt pause – and because they are so small, those moves draw us in, bring us close, make us feel as if we're eavesdropping at the next table.

That intimacy and the artistry with which it's crafted make this a captivating hour. They turn Friel's Chekhovian fantasy into a waltz of the walking wounded, danced with stately grace to a beautifully elegiac tune, the unforgiving music of time.

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Afterplay, Austin Playhouse, Brian Friel, Anton Chekhov, Babs George, Don Toner

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