In broad outline, A.R. Gurney’s new play “Buffalo Gal” sounds charming. Set in a struggling regional theater, backstage dramedy blows a kiss to Chekhov with its plot about a fading TV star overcome with nostalgia when she returns to her hometown to play Madame Ranevskaya in “The Cherry Orchard.” While constructing clever literary parallels to delight academic minds, Gurney also gives a big hug to his native Buffalo and to regional theaters everywhere, for upholding the community values of an America rapidly falling off the map.
Gee, how can it miss? Well, let’s see — one thing that Gurney can’t be faulted is the meticulous construction of his referential play. Parallels with Chekhovian characters and themes — some discreet and some broadly comic — abound, once the glamorous Amanda (Susan Sullivan) arrives from Hollywood with all her good-hearted intentions and theatrical pretensions.
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Like Ranevskaya, Amanda is overcome with sentimental affection for her beloved home town but ambivalent about her tangible commitment to it. “My sweet, wonderful room!” she gushes, quoting from the playscript. “And here I am, back in my own childhood!”
Hearing that her grandmother’s house is on the market, she fantasizes about buying the old place and making it home. But her “large financial obligations” make the offer of a continuing role in a new sitcom mighty tempting.
Amanda is also drawn to the gutsy theatrical “family” she finds waiting for her in the community theater where she got her start. That would be Jackie (Jennifer Regan), the company director desperate to keep the theater from going belly-up; Roy (James Waterston), the taciturn production stage manager with a sweet reverence for “the sound of words”; James (Dathan B. Williams), the stalwart local actor who stayed on to work the farm, so to speak, instead of running off to the city to make his fortune; and dear little Debbie (Carmen M. Herlihy), the bright young intern who has all the answers, if only someone would listen.
To make this trip down memory lane even more memorable for his leading lady, Gurney has gifted her with an adoring admirer in Dan (Mark Blum), a successful dentist in his present life — but in his youth, Amanda’s first and truest love.
Amanda is in very good company here, and it’s a mystery why something more exciting — or poignant — doesn’t happen with these characters. Or why Amanda’s dilemma doesn’t translate easily into the larger issues Gurney raises about endangered American institutions like regional communities and the small theaters that reflect and sustain their civic and aesthetic values.
One problem is that, like Chekhov, Gurney writes plays that navigate the narrow ledge between comedy and drama. The directorial challenge is to keep both play and performers from tipping the balance, which helmer Mark Lamos doesn’t manage as well as he did last season with Gurney’s “Indian Blood.” As it plays, the production gives “Buffalo Gal” what it asks for, which is a confident reading of a bittersweet comedy, instead of what it needs — which is a good push into darker territory.
It would help if Amanda had some compelling reason to rekindle her love for the stage — or for Buffalo. The shabby set of what is supposed to be a vital regional house looks like community theater night at the Legion hall. Not much appeal there.
And Williams gives such a mannered perf as James, who is supposed to represent the “authentic” stage acting Amanda gave up, that he’s even less of a draw.
As Jackie, the theater’s shrewd but cynical artistic director, Regan seems up for some lively conversation about the artistic and civic merits of a strong regional theater. But the character is severely underwritten — almost ignored — and reduced to sullen muttering of good lines that get lost.
It was Gurney’s choice, instead, to focus on the high school romance between Amanda and Dan and to suggest a rekindled love might be as good a reason as any to keep Amanda in Buffalo. On paper, there’s a certain poignancy about this. But with Blum playing it for broad comedy — lunging at Amanda while braying out lines like “Let’s gather rosebuds, kid!” — the Chekhovian delicacy is lost.
Which leaves Sullivan pretty much on her own to find the vulnerable core of her flinty character. Thesp’s considerable TV experience (on “Dharma & Greg” and “Falcon Crest”) gives her the chops to make convincing work of Amanda’s vague yearnings to give up commercial acting for the regional stage.
But the aura of self-control that pegs Sullivan as a good Gurney WASP makes her look slightly ridiculous when forced to display Amanda’s theatricality. Grand gestures simply do not suit this down-to-earth thesp, no more than the silly sentiments that have her swooning in the arms of a buffoon. A little more dignity, please — even if we are in Buffalo.