First Nighter: Brian Friel's "Afterplay," Horton Foote's "The Roads to Home," Jonathan Rockefeller's "That Golden Girls Show!"

Contemporary playwrights influenced by Anton Chekhov outnumber those who haven't been--and by overwhelming numbers. Most of them leave implicit their debt to the master. For instance, British playwright N. C. Hunter, whose A Day by the Sea is currently being smartly revived at the Mint.

Brian Friel took a more direct approach in 2002 with Afterplay, just revived at the Irish Repertory. (Don't confuse this Afterplay with Anne Meara's After-Play, which is her homage to influencer J. B. Priestley.) Friel lifts Chekhov's sad, disappointed Sonya from Uncle Vanya (1897) and spoiled, aimless violin-playing Andrey from The Three Sisters (1900). Chekhov sees them when they're young and only beginning to face life's disillusions. Friel has them meet not really cute in a Moscow café a few decades later.

If you're thinking he's written extended epilogues for both comedy-dramas, you're on the right wavelength. Here's Sonya (Dearbhla Molloy), discovered on John Lee Beatty's set redolent of 1920s Russia, shuffling papers--just as she is at the Uncle Vanya fade-out. Only now, she eventually explains, she's examining troubling bank documents regarding the farm she runs on her own after Vanya's death 19 years earlier.

Andrey (Dermot Crowley), turning up almost immediately in shabby formal wear (Fabio Toblini's costumes) and carrying his violin case, has obviously accomplished what his sisters always insisted they would do. He's returned to the Moscow where the siblings were born and which they left when young. Andrey repeats to Sonya, whom he'd met the previous evening at the same café table, that he's just finished rehearsal for the following night's La Boheme performance at the nearby opera house.

As she finishes tea and tipples from the bottle of vodka she hides in her satchel and as he spoons cabbage soup and munches on fresh brown bread, they exchange confidences that in time occasionally are lies. Recognizing failings in each other as a result of knowing themselves too well, they are drawn together even as they intuit that any hope they harbor for lasting bonds is nonexistent.

Friel's palpable success with Afterplay is the extent to which he's composed a play that might have fooled Chekhov himself into believing he'd come up with but just can't remember when. That's how persuasive it is for the 60 minutes or so during which Andrey and Sonya reveal the heavy melancholy of their marginal existences--marginal existences extending to Andrey's estranged children, Bobik and Sophie, and to Dr. Astrov, for whom Sonya's longtime unrequited longing still endures.

As directed with Chekhovian sensitivity by Joe Dowling, Crowley and Molloy play together with doleful beauty. Both their performances are underpinned by fathoms of vulnerability and hurt. Attempting to retain kindness and enjoyment in her soft face, Molloy allows Sonya's worries to emerge at the edges of her pleasantries. Crowley does a grand job of depicting Andrey's embarrassment at constantly needing to dissemble merely to be accepted.

During the conversation, Andrey becomes upset at the thought of his sisters Olga and Irina at home still dreaming that one day they, too, will be back in Moscow where they belong. (Masha is deceased, he reports.) As audience members listen, more than one will likely be thinking that Friel, who died a year ago at 86, has been so clever about filling in these Chekhov lives that perhaps some other spiritual Chekhov sons and daughters might be prompted to tell us what's become of the playwright's other unforgettable characters.
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Horton Foote often said that the many plays in which he included people living either in the fictional town of Harrison, Texas or having once lived in Harrison are based on the stories he heard when he was growing up in Wharton, Texas, the southeastern town not too far from cosmopolitan Houston.

In other words, he was happy to make it seem as if he were merely transcribing first-hand what he'd listened to and remembered from all those natural-born Texas storytellers around him when he was growing up. That's certainly what he suggests in The Roads to Home, the three related one-acts at the Cherry Lane, where frequent Foote purveyors Primary Stages are now based.

Two of the pithy pieces take place at the middle-class Votaugh home in 1924, and the third takes place in 1928 during a prom at a nearby asylum. Since Foote, who died in 2009, was born in 1916, the scenes "A Nightingale," "The Dearest of Friends" and "Spring Dance" represent conversations he overheard or perhaps had repeated to him when he was 8 and 12.

There's no question that "A Nightingale"--maybe the strongest of the trio--comes across as a verbatim exchange between and among its four participants. Mabel Votaugh (our leading Foote interpreter Hallie Foote) and Vonnie Hayhurst (Harriet Harris) are in the kitchen shooting the Texas breeze about the backgrounds and genealogy of seemingly everyone they know when Annie Gayle Long (Rebecca Brooksher), whose problematic mental health they'd already gossiped, arrives.

Annie Gayle's first gesture is to extend her hand as if she's carrying a gun (remember this is Texas) and then making firing sounds. Immediately, her mental health registers as more than problematic. Nevertheless, Mabel and Vonnie do everything they can to calm the visitor, who did watch a family friend shoot and kill her father. Attempting to remind her about the children she's presumably left at home, the ladies do what they can until Annie Gayle's worried husband, Mr. Long (Dan Bittner), comes to lead her home.

The slice-of-Texas-life tenor of "The Nightingale" (Annie Gayle does some impromptu sing as well) continues in "The Dearest of Friends," which has Mabel and drowsy husband Jack (Devon Abner) in the living room of Jeff Cowie's cannily authentic set joined by Vonnie and eventually her husband Eddie (Matt Sullivan). It transpires that Vonnie can't pay attention to the crazy-hearts card game she's playing with Mabel because she's learned that Eddie is having an affair with a Harrison woman they all know. Worse yet, he's asked for a divorce.

Having composed that unresolved but totally convincing glimpse of the Votaugh-Hayhurst friendship, Foote in "Spring Dance" jumps four years to an asylum for well-heeled locals. Here, Annie Gayle is now institutionalized and converses now coherently, now distractedly with the silent Dave Dushon (Bittner) and Greene Hamilton (Sullivan), to whom she refers several times in "A Nightingale," and to new character Cecil Henry (Abner).

Perhaps because this scene seems less likely to be one that the young Foote might have had described to him, it's the least convincing of the three one-acts. But again it's well performed by these Horton Foote players in the latest Primary Stages tribute to possibly the company's favorite author.
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Golden Girls fans who can't get enough of the long-running Bea Arthur-Betty White-Rue McClanahan-Estelle Getty television series have a treat in store. It's The Golden Girls Show!, created and directed by Jonathan Rockefeller, at DR2. In it Emmanuelle Zeesman, Cat Greenfield, Michael LaMasa and Arlee Chadwick, all dressed in black, wield, respectively, Sophia, Blanche, Dorothy and Rose puppets. Zack Kononov, who holds no puppet, plays Stan.

Rockefeller gives the impression of stringing together three related episodes over the 90 minutes his parody goes on. They're chockablock with funny lines that echo the series insult humor, although there are occasional slack moments. Joel Gennari, the puppet creation/puppet direction person enhances the look, as does scene and lighting designer David Goldstein. Added plus: The audience gets to join in on the beloved theme song.