Playwrights must envy Anton Chekhov -- or should. His characters are so complexly human that they defy stereotyping, creating theatrical moments unlike any other dramatist.
So, if you can't top Chekhov, why not copy him? Brian Friel has taken that strategy in two one-act plays staged as part of Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre's Chekhov Celebration. PICT used Mr. Friel's translation of "Uncle Vanya" several years ago, so he knows the territory.
"Afterplay" catches up with a "Vanya" character, Sonya, and a "Three Sisters" figure, Andrei, the wastrel brother of the women, 20 years or so after the plays take place. The two meet in a Moscow restaurant (Andrei is the only Prozorov to finally get there) and reveal to each other how the unhappiness and failed dreams of their younger days continue to grip them.
Sensible, plain Sonya kept the estate of her Uncle Vanya running while hopelessly in love with Dr. Astrov, a frequent visitor. Helena Ruoti captures the character's wistful memories of her youth and her still powerful love for Astrov in a moving performance.
Martin Giles plays the rueful, defeated Andrei in a low-key style that reminds us of his character's ineffectual nature, especially with his wife, the aggressive Natasha. Mr. Friel uses Chekhov's themes of deception and delusion to continue the predictable course of the Russian writer's creations.
It's a literary trick, after all, this "sequel" to plays that need no revising, but Mr. Friel pulls it off with his sensitive treatment of Andrei and Sonya, so effectively that an audience member behind me gasped when the fate of a Prozorov sister was revealed, as though these people were real.
The other one-act, "The Yalta Game," is less graceful and moving. Set in the Black Sea resort where Chekhov lived, the story of a casual seduction of a young wife by a Moscow dandy is talky and hyperbolic. Allison McLemore, who was a fierce Masha in PICT's "Three Sisters," and Jonathan Visser, who played the scary Solyony in the same play, don't connect well as the lovers who deny, accept, then deny their passion.
Mr. Friel plays with Chekhov's sense that people can fool themselves with fantasy and childish hopes that then smash up against reality, but the short play is a jumble of broad comedy and overly strained emotion made more obvious by overacting.
Alan Stanford, a four-year PICT veteran, directed with mixed results, perhaps more due to the mixed quality of the material.
To paraphrase a famous putdown, "I enjoy Chekhov, Chekhov is a favorite of mine, but Brian Friel is no Chekhov."
Bob Hoover: email@example.com