Sunday, August 3, 2008

Buffalo Gal

When I was in college, I directed a production of A.R. Gurney's The Golden Fleece with Catherine and our friend, Danny Tamez. The one-act is the story of Medea as told by a very WASPy couple who have invited their friends, Jason and Medea, to come in and show this audience the Golden Fleece; its basically as though the messengers from a Greek play are getting showcased in a play of their own... but still having to tell the audience about all of the things that aren't happening on stage. It's a slight piece but perfect for a student-directed production: no set, no costumes, no props (that I remember), and even though you know where the play is going pretty quickly (because most theater students know Medea well enough to get it pretty quickly), it's fun to see how the playwright is going to get you to the end.

Over the years, I've seen other Gurney plays: The Dining Room (which is a series of vignettes all created around the title location, most of which involve WASPy families interacting with one another); Love Letters (a WASPy couple reading their correspondences directly to the audience to illustrate the disentigration of their relationship from love in bloom to the unhappy ending); and The Cocktail Hour (a WASPy family interacting with one another just before dinner time over—are you ready for this?—cocktails). Gurney is a talented writer and I liked all three plays fine but I didn't seen anything else by him for a while because... well, let's just say that I've got nothing against Wonder bread, but I prefer something with a little more fiber.

Setting my snarkiness aside for a moment, there's actually a lot to recommend Buffalo Gal. The writing is strong and even though the main character is yet another WASPy lady, Gurney has also made Amanda an aging, insecure Hollywood star returning to her hometown (Buffalo, of course) to do a production of The Cherry Orchard. The juxtaposition of these two... I hesitate to say characatures, but they are very familiar... this smash-up offers some interesting opportunities for the actor, Susan Sullivan—the WASPy mother on tv's Dharma & Greg—and she does a good job of showing us the character's struggle to embrace her better angels.

The play takes place on the stage of the theater the day before rehearsals are to begin, the star having asked the director to arrive a day early to assuage her fears about returning to live performance after many years' absence. The plot has quite a few twists—some of which are moderately surprising—but I had little doubt where the story was ultimately going: of course there's going to be a competing offer for a television series. Along the way, however, Gurney provided some interesting sidebar questions: about the definition of success, about expectations in the theater, familial obligations, the role of personal integrity in our day-to-day realities. I thought it interesting that one plot point hinged on inclusive casting—over a decade after the practice has become pretty much the norm in non-commercial productions (i.e., not Broadway, film or television)—but it's handled well and is fun moment.

I could see this play doing very well in the regional theaters—and I don't mean that nastily. It's a fun backstage story that explains itself for the uninitiated as it goes along. It's familiar without being incredibly predictable. And it offers character actors several really great characters to play. It's about choosing to live outside the megalopolis and still recognizing that there are opportunities that exist only there. If I was selecting a new play to mount in a regional theater, Buffalo Gal would definitely be near the top of that list.

My own sidebar: my first job in New York was a tour that took me all over the country. During our time in Buffalo, I had the opportunity to see a production of Twelfth Night at the Studio Arena Theater and it was one of the best productions I've ever seen of that play. I hoped then that I'd get to come do a production there someday. Sadly, there's a possibility that that day may never come now.

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