It's such a fine idea: Take two characters from classical literature, and make them meet in a café. What would they say to each other? English teachers assign this task to their high school students, so why shouldn't Brian Friel, The Greatest Living Irish Dramatist, take a crack at it?
The only problem with a Chekhov expert writing a play about two Chekhov characters is that most of us won't understand the subtleties. Oh, we get it: In "Afterplay," Sonya is a flustered woman who lives a lonely life on a farm, and Andrei is a pathetic public servant who plays the violin. But if you don't know Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters backward and forward, you miss nearly all the humor. You take their references at face value, mere trivia traded between acquaintances. Andrei wanted to be a scientist? How quaint.
Still, if you know at least one Chekhov play, you will likely enjoy "Afterplay," one of two Friel one-acts in Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre's evening titled After Chekhov. Martin Giles and Helena Ruoti are among the city's most distinguished actors, so seeing them here is kind of like watching Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep perform at a fringe festival. They sounded a little under-rehearsed last Friday, but that's what opening nights are for. For performers, PICT's Chekhov Celebration is a deadly gauntlet. A few flubs won't ruin a festival.
But the superior play, by far, is Friel's "The Yalta Game," the story of an extramarital affair played out in the sunny Crimea. Gurov spots Anna, entices her, seduces her, and then they drift apart. You might know that Yalta is based on Chekhov's short story "The Lady With the Dog." But Chekhovian lore hardly matters. Jonathan Visser is an exuberantly physical actor, like a wilier Wile E. Coyote, and Allison McLemore matches his playfulness — a superhuman feat. Their romance is an existential clown show, performed among a few foldout wooden chairs.
Admirably, Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre has a heavyweight budget, but it can still think small. Not everyone can say that. Take away the sets, costumes and transatlantic actors, and look — the heart's still there.