nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
August 1, 2008
Nearly everyone has a birthplace they can return to—or not. An actual homecoming brings out childhood snapshots stored for such occasions as well as secrets or insecurities otherwise suppressed. The confluence of childhood memories and adult reality come together to form 90 minutes of agreeable theater in A. R. Gurney's Buffalo Gal, a new play set in the playwright's hometown.
The play begins, naturally, with the arrival of Amanda, a fading television star who wants to jump-start her career by appearing on the stage. She returns to her hometown of Buffalo, where she is considered something of a celebrity, to star in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, a play whose themes of memory and loss parallel Amanda's current circumstances. Amanda arrives a day before the rest of the cast to get her bearings and to gain confidence on the regional stage. During the course of the day, she meets Jackie, the ambitious director eager to take The Cherry Orchard to Broadway; Roy, the stage manager; and Debbie, the eager intern. She also stumbles on a few situations that are not easy for her to digest: her grandmother's house is for sale; a friend, who was to play her brother in The Cherry Orchard and provide needed emotional support, drops out for a higher paying gig; his replacement, James, is an African American; and Dan, a childhood romance, pushes his way back into her life. Amanda's real life also intrudes: her agent is reluctant to sign the theatre's contract, her unstable daughter is in and out of costly institutions, a granddaughter appears on her door step, Amanda is broke; and, finally, a lucrative television job finally presents itself.
High points in the play include Susan Sullivan as she glides her Amanda onto the stage with enough pompous arrogance to bottle and sell it at Macy's during Christmas. Sullivan balances her character's arrogance with the insecurity of remembering her lines or pronouncing her character's name correctly, the landowner Ranevskaya. Also ready to meet her quotient of humor is Carmen Herlihy in her turn as Debbie, the intern—a "can-do" spunk of a know-it-all college student. And, Dathan B. Williams makes a strong impression as James when he enters auditioning for the role of the brother for which he has already been cast.
The play is dotted with humor and devious obstacles, and it seems like Mark Lamos has directed the remaining actors to respond to each successive crisis cerebrally rather than with physical alarm. Jennifer Regan, as the local director of The Cherry Orchard, seems almost resigned to each new impediment. It is as if she doesn't see the approaching high-speed steamroller. Even when Amanda's old flame, Dan (Mark Blum), insists on taking over her stage, she allows it with barely a whimper. The play nearly comes to a halt when Dan plays an old duet of Amanda and him singing together. The audience has already heard it, and the second playing doesn't push the plot forward. Rather, we are waiting for Dan to catch up to us. James Waterston as Roy, the stage manager, works up a little steam over his model set, which hints at a future disaster but ultimately leads to nothing. But it is the exits, which could have been funny, suspenseful, or both, which ended up being prolonged. When Sullivan leaves the stage, I could feel the absence of star power. Perhaps, Lamos is aiming for this. But, the remaining characters have a bushel-load of problems to solve. And, I, as a member of the audience, wanted to feel their struggle to survive Amanda's whims, not only the void of her physical presence.
I like memory plays. And, I liked this one. Memory plays provide sufficient baggage—real or imagined—to turn a plot; plus, the theme is universal. But, Buffalo Gal did leave me wanting more: more action and less talking about what already happened. Perhaps, a second act, the one that was distilled into the current single act, might have done the trick.
The set, designed by Andrew Jackness, works well for the actors, but seemed aesthetically disjointed to me. Candice Donnelly created a cool orange jacket for Amanda with coordinated, strappy sandals that stand out. Mary Louise Geiger's lighting shows distinction between the play and the play-within-a-play. The rendition of "Buffalo Gals" is high-spirited and perfect for this play.