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Buffalo Gal

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Susan Sullivan, Carmen M. Herlihy, and James Waterston.
Photo by James Leynse.

Paths toward theatrical art and filmic commerce intersect, in ways merry and melancholy, in the stirring play Buffalo Gal at Primary Stages at 59E59.

What? Another ranty treatise on the moribund American theatre as sacrificed at the altar of Hollywood? In a way. Set in a small but respected regional theater in Buffalo, the play contains all the expected hand-wringing consignments, wistful reminiscences, and loaded theatrical allusions that frequently identify complaints about the permanently perilous state of live performance.

But as spun by A. R. Gurney, a playwright who's constructed his career on documenting the uneasy interactions of the socially toned and tone deaf, this story avoids all-out self-pity as it preaches to the acclimatized. For in addition to being a strong character study, a firm-footed backstage fable, and an temperate-voiced screed about the difficulty presenting even the smallest show, it's also a curiously engrossing mystery: Who exactly is the title character?

Easy money is on Amanda (Susan Sullivan), an aging television doyenne who's decamped California for her upstate New York hometown to star as Madame Ranevskaya in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. Her agent has advised otherwise - isn't the smarter career move to play the sassy grandmother on what could be the next big-hit sitcom? No, Amanda longs to return to "two boards and a passion," to interpret a great role by a great writer and rekindle her love affair with her long-dormant craft.

Of course, the allure of Hollywood is hard to resist: chauffeured cars, nearly improvised scripts (learning exact lines is such a trial), and extravagant paychecks for minimal work provide plenty of impetus for Amanda to renege. Her beloved grandmother taught her otherwise, though, and the kinship with her Amanda feels when she returns to Buffalo to find her house for sale cements her resolve that doing the show is the right thing for her soul.

Commitment takes a different form with the other Buffalo candidate, Jackie (Jennifer Regan). She's the play's director, and a stalwart of the theater who's just trying to keep the foundering company alive. Dealing with Amanda's uncooperative management, the star's escalating demands (such as wanting to meet her newly cast costar), and a starstruck dentist fan named Dan (Mark Blum) with a history with Amanda from the old days is not the full-time job she desires - but she accepts it for the good of the theater she's devoted her life to.

As major and minor conflicts mount between the women, concerning incompatible expectations from themselves and from each other, Gurney nimbly weaves between the past and present on waves of watercolor nostalgia and more lucid, present-focused realism. Amanda might amuse as a grand dame in the making, flourishing deep bows and hands to the art as though escaped from a sepia-kissed three sheet, but you never doubt her genuineness; Jackie's industry likewise emanates from her own core values, to provide well-pitched, non-desparate contrast.

Director Mark Lamos keeps each side of the argument clear-eyed and clever, and with the help of set designer Andrew Jackness and lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger plunges you into Gurney's cutting portrayal of the down-but-not-quite-out regionals' hardscrabble world.

Mark Blum and Susan Sullivan.
Photo by James Leynse.

Where writer and director fail is in bringing to life the supporting characters that might round out the picture. Stage manager Roy (James Waterston) sees and knows stereotypically too much, an underage sage rather than the caffeine booster shot that Jackie and Amanda ideally require; his assistant Debbie (Carmen M. Herlihy) is an annoying know-it-all on hand apparently only to recite various litanies about arts funding; and James (Dathan B. Williams), is the African-American replacement actor who charms Amanda and coaxes her out of the perceived prejudice that never convincingly afflicts her. The actors are game, but incapable of making these cookie-cutter creations ever feel organic.

The other half of the cast is terrific: Blum's electrically mannered exuberance allows Dan, ready to change his entire life for Amanda, to become a palpable symbol of the illuminating and transformative effects of stardom. Regan bluntly blends Jackie's businesslike and fantastical facets into a coldly lovable woman of such staunch determination that you understand just how she carries the theater on her shoulders. Sullivan, herself a TV fixture (from Falcon's Crest and Dharma & Greg, among others), injects Amanda with an infectious imperiousness that caresses as it cudgels, making both actress and actress-as-actress perfect matches for Ranevskaya.

Though the parallels between her and Amanda are hardly lost on either Gurney or even the other characters, the intermingling of actress and character never becomes heavy-handed. As Amanda plays through an "audition" with James, or revives her old fondness for Dan while dressed in her faded-purity Cherry Orchard costume (the lovely work of Candice Donnelly), boundaries blur just gently enough to keep romance of live theatre alive - for her and for us.

Gurney, Lamos, and the actors demonstrate in such moments what theatre channels that no other art can, and makes a stronger case for its propagation than in all the other associated speechifying. It's as this point is made that the title's true meaning becomes arrestingly clear: Theatre will never die as long as there's a little bit of Buffalo in everyone - thankfully, there's plenty in Buffalo Gal.

Buffalo Gal
Through September 13
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison.
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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