Buffalo wings and the Buffalo Bills get honorable mention in A.R. Gurney’s comedy that takes place (as did the recent “Indian Blood” and other plays in the Gurney canon) within Buffalo, the city closest to his heart. But it’s a Buffalo Gal who commands the spotlight when she returns to her hometown to re-connect with her roots and to align with the local professional theater group.
Amanda (Susan Sullivan), a middle-aged TV diva, perhaps even a legend in her own mind, is also a prodigal daughter of the WASP gentry that once graced the city. She has presumably/hopefully/questionably made the decision (against her agent’s wishes) to take the starring role of Madame Ranevskya in Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” It’s a daring move considering Amanda’s current financial woes and the personal problems that involve the care for an emotionally needy adult daughter.
It isn’t that Amanda can’t make up her mind. She claims to be fully committed to the play and to Jackie (Jennifer Regan), the artistic director of the theater. Jackie is counting on Amanda’s fame both on TV and as a renowned Buffalo native to boost box office sales for the first production of the season. Amanda’s career has begun to stall and she sees this role as an artistic, if not a financial, boost. That she is conflicted by the prospect of forfeiting a role in a pilot for a promising TV series as well as by the reappearance of an old lover also adds a perplexing undercurrent to her overstated enthusiasm for the local production.
You could call it type casting to have Ms. Sullivan, an actor with considerable TV credits portraying an actor with considerable TV credits. That Gurney has also cleverly aligned Amanda to walk in the shadow of Mme Ranevskya is also a conceit worth savoring.
While Amanda’s motive for returning is psychologically understandable, the practicality of it is not. To make matters more incredulous, Amanda’s behavior is so blatantly and transparently artificial that one suspects her portrayal of Mme Ranevskaya won’t be something of a farce. Amanda also makes a pretense of theatrical nobility by bowing and curtsying to her peers, a gesture that wears thin in short order. At first, she is dismayed by finding out that her leading man is a local African-American actor and by the notion of non-traditional casting for Chekhov. She registers relief and delight, however, when James (Dathan B. Williams) turns out to be the aspiring actor and friend she recalls from childhood acting classes in Buffalo.
Gurney’s goal — to show the overlap between life and art, and how Amanda’s love of home and her return to it reflects the similar misgivings that haunt Mme Ranevskaya — is made clear enough. The play basically asks the following questions: 1. Does Amanda have the will to stay in Buffalo and perform in the demanding role, or will she realize that memorizing short bits of dialogue for a TV series is a heckuva lot easier than memorizing and performing Chekhov eight times a week? 2. Will Jackie be able to count on Amanda to get the new theater season off to a financially good start? And 3. Will Dan (Mark Blum), Amanda’s old beau, and a Jew to boot, who is now (as he says) unhappily married with children, be able to rekindle in Amanda the love he still professes?
Despite her underdeveloped role, Regan is fine as Jackie, the director who has to spend more time than she would like cow-towing to Amanda’s whims and insecurities. James W. Waterston gives a fine account of stage, if not actor, managing. Williams is also winning as the leading man who is almost as pretentiously mannered as Amanda. Blum has the difficult task of playing the least convincing character, that of Dan, Amanda’s overbearing and foolish former lover. However, he cannot be faulted for the zeal he puts into his aggressive wooing. His and Amanda’s romantic interlude is punctuated by a charming diversion: the playing of an old recording of a song “Say When,” that he once composed for her. (The song was actually composed by Tom Cabaniss with lyrics by Gurney).
This is the fourth undoubtedly compatible collaboration between Gurney and director Mark Lamos. Although the play ends with a question mark, Lamos has nailed down its comical edge without losing a sense of the desperation and sadness at its core.
The action of the play occurs on the stage of the regional theater. Set designer Andrew Jackness makes it clear, from the assembled props, bric-a-brac — especially a flat painted with cherry trees, a hobby horse and the obligatory samovar — what is on the docket. At its best, “Buffalo Gal” is amusing, undemanding, and occasionally witty. Notwithstanding the Chekhovian illusions, Gurney’s flair for bon mots are scattered throughout, and often from the delightful chirping of a disarming Carmen M. Herlihy, who plays Debbie, the novice assistant stage manager cum graduate student in the midst of writing her thesis. “Aristotle would call it the recognition scene. A change from ignorance to knowledge.”
Her immediate response to the moment when Amanda realizes who the African-American actor is is a gem. The play has been streamlined to a long one-act since its original two-act production at the 2001 Williamstown Theatre Festival. The best news is that Gurney, who was recently inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, hasn’t exactly been idle in the seven years it has taken for “Buffalo Gal” to reach New York. In that time Gurney continued to prod provocative social themes (“Big Bill” and “Crazy Mary”), score a political punch (“Mrs. Farnsworth”) and still have room to for a bit more biographical nostalgia (“Indian Blood”).
Another aspect of ‘Buffalo Gal’s” plot is the importance given to the appearance of a visiting star to a struggling theater. Buffalo’s Studio Arena Theater, a professional enterprise since the late 1950s, and where many Gurney plays have been presented, sadly closed its doors last February due to a decline in subscriptions and funding, and facing a $3 million deficit. ***
“Buffalo Gal,” through September 13, 59E59 Theaters at 59 East 59th Street. $60 with a specially priced $20 ticket available to patrons 35 and under. 212-840-9705.