Written by A. R. Gurney
Directed by Mark Lamos
Starring Susan Sullivan, Mark Blum, Carmen M. Herlihy, Jennifer Regan, James Waterston, Dathan B. Williams
Performances from July 22 to September 13, 2008
Primary Stages at 59 E 59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street
A.R. Gurney’s plays have always been about his hometown of Buffalo, the second-largest city in New York State that’s been plagued by bad press about its winters—which really aren’t that bad, occasional snowstorms notwithstanding—and the failures of its sports teams (four straight Super Bowls losses for the NFL Bills, anyone?).
In the Gurney oeuvre, however, no play before Buffalo Gal has been a heartfelt requiem for his beloved–but faltering–city. (Coincidentally, in a report released this week, Forbes magazine has unsurprisingly chosen Buffalo as one of America’s “fastest dying cities.”) This bittersweet comedy stars a formerly famous actress, Amanda, who returns to her hometown of Buffalo to (she hopes) jump-start her flagging career by starring in a production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard at a local space modeled on Buffalo’s Studio Arena Theater, the home of several Gurney premieres over the years which earlier this spring filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Admittedly, it’s not exactly a subtle storyline: this “Buffalo Gal” returns home with her own career in tatters to play Madame Ranevskaya, the matriarch of a family in tatters, whose estate is about to be sold. As usual with Gurney, however, it’s done so artfully and effortlessly that–in spite of its 90-minute, intermissionless running time and paper-thin plotting–these connections are made, cogently and pertinently. The result is a melancholy play that approximates, in broad brushstrokes, the often interiorized tragicomic drama of Chekhov’s masterwork.
Of course, Amanda’s return to the place where she grew up and got her start–and where everyone still looks at her as a star, even though she’s long since faded (otherwise, why return?)—lets Gurney playfully puncture her ego: her exaggerated bows to everyone upon her arrival are the first of many clues. But the playwright also has genuine affection for Amanda—as he does for his put-upon city—by allowing her moments of self-awareness, as nostalgia for her early days butts heads with her current financial situation, which could be helped by a “recurring role” in a Fox network sitcom.
As a fellow former Buffalo resident, I laughed at “inside jokes” that the New York audience hadn’t a clue about; conversely, when Amanda states, in all honesty, that she loved seeing the old houses on Delaware Avenue–which she rightly calls “one of the great thoroughfares of the western world”–the audience laughs, thinking it’s an absurd thing to say. Oh well.
It’s the secondary characters that prevent Buffalo Gal from attaining classic backstage comedy status: Jackie, the earnest theater director; Roy, the competent stage manager; Debbie, the chatty assistant stage manager; James, the black actor whose career has remained in Buffalo; and Dan, Amanda’s old flame who wants to begin again with her, all remain cardboard pegs moved about only to get into and out of Amanda’s way as her TV sitcom opportunity allows her the chance to weasel her way out of her stage commitment in Buffalo as quickly as she arrived.
But even here Gurney gets good comic mileage out of the situation, as when Amanda looks aghast when she discovers that James will play her brother in The Cherry Orchard in a bit of non-traditional casting, or Debbie’s constant interruptions about theater and Buffalo history. Mark Lamos’ estimable staging is most effective at smoothing over the rough spots in Gurney’s script, which is where the capable supporting cast comes in, led by Jennifer Regan’s headstrong Jackie and James Waterston’s practical Roy.
Although she doesn’t have the diva-like aura that Amanda begs for–Betty Buckley, who played the role when Buffalo Gal played Buffalo’s Studio Arena Theater in 2002, definitely would have filled the bill–Susan Sullivan gives a nuanced, intelligent performance that peaks gloriously in the play’s final regretful moments, as Gurney’s beautifully-written elegy ebbs most gracefully.
Originally posted on timessquare.com