August 6, 2008

A Bittersweet Elegy for "Buffalo Gal"

My sister Joanne turned me down when I invited her to see Buffalo Gal, the new A.R. Gurney play that just opened at Primary Stages. “I’m not in the mood for an Annie Oakley kind of thing,” she told me, apparently imagining a non-musical version of Annie Get Your Gun. But Buffalo Gal has nothing to do with sharpshooting or steer wrangling. Its heroine is a once-successful TV actress named Amanda who tries to fire up her career by starring as Madame Ranevskaya in a production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard for a struggling theater company back in her hometown of Buffalo, N.Y. As she sees it, doing theater helped Angela Lansbury and Carol Burnett, why shouldn’t it help her?

Joanne, always a big TV fan, liked this storyline a lot better and so off we went to the 59E59 Theater, where Buffalo Gal is playing through Sept. 13. The play runs just a little over 90 minutes but it’s chocked full of stuff. In fact, if you’re the kind of theatergoer who likes a play that gives you something to chew on, then your jaws will probably get tired before you’re done with Buffalo Gal.

First off, there’s The Cherry Orchard parallel: the mirror stories of aristocratic women returning home to reclaim an impoverished patrimony. Then there’s the theme of the pauper's role theater plays in our fame-hungry culture: just as the play’s rehearsals begin, Amanda is offered a new sitcom and has to choose between the two. There’s also art imitating life: Gurney left his native Buffalo years ago but has returned often to stage his plays there and although Susan Sullivan, who plays Amanda, is an accomplished stage performer with both Broadway and regional credits on her résumé, she’s best known as a TV actor who’s had starring roles in shows like “Falcon Crest” and “Dharma & Greg (click here to read a revealing interview with her).”

And, of course, since this is a play by the author of such works as The Dining Room, The Cocktail Hour and Love Letters, there’s the whole end of the WASP era thing. In this case, it’s represented by Amanda’s high-school boyfriend Dan, played by Mark Blum, who grew up to become a Jewish dentist but who never grew out of his love for his shiksa goddess and the evanescent world she symbolizes.

That’s an awful lot of weight for such a small play to carry. And I haven’t even mentioned the storylines about the lesbian director, the African-American leading man or the stage manager with deaf parents. All of this means there’s a lot of tell and not quite enough show in Buffalo Gal. Still, much of the tell is amusing. And the actors, particularly the women—Sullivan, Jennifer Regan as the director, and Carmen M. Herlihy as an overly sincere intern—give appealing performances.

But what won me over is Gurney’s unabashed love for the theater and the people who make it. Including, seemingly, those Hollywood emigres whom we so often dismiss as doing theater the way college applicants do volunteer work in Third World countries: an ostentatiously trendy way to pick up some Brownie points.

Watching Gurney’s Amanda wrestle with whether to stay in Buffalo with the play or go to Hollywood and grab the sitcom, gave me a new perspective on how much courage it must take for a movie or TV star to go before a live audience eight times a week, on how admirable it is for folks who can earn millions to agree to work for relative pocket change, on how the very fact that screen actors seek legitimacy by doing stage work bestows added authority on the theater. Instead of griping the next time I read about some movie star coming to Broadway, I’m going to be grateful and more supportive.

“I thought it was cute,” my sister said after we left the theater and walked across town to find something to eat. I think Buffalo Gal is more than that. For Gurney has written a love letter to contemporary theater and despite its shortcomings, I have a feeling that regional companies across the country will return his affection with productions of this play for years to come. Unfortunately the Studio Arena Theatre in his native Buffalo won't be one of them; it filed for bankruptcy and closed earlier this year.

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