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by Rich See

I recognized you instantly from the back of the head.

Picking up where one of literature's great playwright's left off could seem a daunting task; however Brian Friel does a wonderful job of melding Anton Chekhov's Sonya Serebriakova (the niece from Uncle Vanya) and Andrey Prozorov (the brother from Three Sisters). Mr. Friel picks up their lives, twenty years after their stories ended in his bittersweet Afterplay. Studio Theatre brings the duo to life with its charming U.S. premiere that disarmingly seduces the audience with the characters' earthy humor and tender emotionality.

Set in 1921, the play has the two accidentally meeting in a Moscow café and sharing a meal and a drink as they explore the options open to them at this phase of their lives. For Sonya, her beloved farm is near bankruptcy, Uncle Vanya is dead, and the only thing she has is an occasional physical encounter with Astrov. (The doctor she has loved all her life who has now married her step mother, the still beautiful Yelena.) As she wryly put it, "Not much of a way to get through your life, is it?"

Meanwhile, Andrey is divorced from his wife Natalya (who has remarried and lives in a mansion on the outskirts of town), has become estranged from his daughter, and makes monthly visits to his son, an inmate in a Moscow prison. While their worlds have slowly crumbled, the Russian state has deteriorated as well, and from the aftermath of the revolution there is emerging a nation-wide hope for a new beginning. However, for these two individuals, that fresh start means letting go of their pasts, while embracing a deeper courage to face their futures.

Nancy Robinette does a wonderful job as the slyly drinking Sonya. Boiling with rage and resentment, she masks it under a veil of efficiency and propriety. Her bottle of vodka secretly stashed in her leather carry-all, Nancy's Sonya is about maintaining -- maintaining the family farm, maintaining her connection to Astrov, and maintaining her composure and appearance of control. Yet under the veneer, Ms. Robinette (in her signature voice) brings out the pathos in the role as she shares the fright in Sonya's eyes looking out at "that endless tundra of loneliness" or the fact that she has been in love with Astrov "...for twenty-three years...desperately...with no hope of requitement." Just as quickly though, she moves into comedic gear and sneaks a drink and becomes noticeably more inebriated with each sip.

For his part, Edward Gero creates an Andrey who is perfectly aware of his imperfections and life's vagaries. He has no illusions of respite, yet he toils forward focusing on what he can accomplish. Such as... He's long gotten over his pride and so pays for his monthly, week-long trips to the city by performing as a street musician. The playing all day cramps his legs and hurts his feet, but he feels a responsibility to his son, and so he makes the sacrifice. Mr. Gero brings out the boyish qualities of the middle-aged man who, after battling his own inner demons, seems intent on living his life one day at a time. He imbues an endearing timidity in Andrey that comes across in comments like "What a bold, bold woman you are!" or when he admits to fabricating the majority of his life, during his first chance meeting with Sonya.

Director Joy Zinoman shows a quiet, delicate touch as a director in Afterplay. It's a delicate line Robinette and Gero walk to show the mix of sadness, fear, humor, and love within Sonya and Andrey. The world they knew and were a part of has dissolved. Unsure of how to make their way in the Leninist era, they represent an entire generation and class of Russian citizens who suddenly found themselves in a world turned upside down -- one in which they participated, but didn't influence. Ms. Zinoman keeps the cast on target and balancing that tight rope very well.

Debra Booth's set design is a lovely glass gazebo positioned in a decaying portion of Moscow. The cold outside is contrasted by the seeming warmth within its walls. The entire construction has a despairing, magical property. Michael Giannitti's lighting is understated and steady. Devon Painter's costumes are appropriately worn. While Andrey wears a tattered tuxedo as his street performer uniform, Sonya is dressed in a black collection that is part tsarist and part communist construct. Gil Thompson provides a lovely musical background for the piece.

Studio brings Mr. Friel's work to delicate life and continues its intriguing "Russian Winter Season." The timing of Afterplay suggests that spring is approaching. By the end, both Sonya and Andrey have given each other a fresh view of their situations and breathed new strength and courage into each other, their stories continuing...

by Brian Friel
Directed by: Joy Zinoman
with Nancy Robinette and Edward Gero
Setting: Debra Booth
Lighting: Michael Giannitti
Costumes: Devon Painter
Sound: Gil Thompson
Running Time: 1 hour 10 minutes with no intermission
The Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW
Telephone: 202-332-3300
WED - SAT @8, SAT - SUN @2; SUN @7; $35-$48
Opening 03/09/05, closing 04/17/05
Reviewed by Rich See based on 03/13/05 performance
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