“Buffalo Gal” goes home again, with nod to “The Cherry Orchard”

By Lucy Komisar
Aug 6, 2008

Madame Lyubov Andreievna Ranevskaya returns to Russia from Paris, where her finances have been exhausted by the extravagance of her lover and life style. She is devoted to the family estate, especially the cherry orchard, and wants to save it from a threatening debt. But her estranged lover sends word urging her return to Paris. In the end, she sells the estate to Lopakhin, a family friend, who chops down the trees to clear the land for development.

Fast forward about a century from Anton Chekhov to American playwright A.R. Gurney. With the help of a smooth, light-hearted production by director Mark Lamos, Gurney weaves the Chekhov story into “Buffalo Gal,” an often wry tale of a woman who is drawn to her childhood home but has to deal with economic realities. It‘s also about the acting game, those who make it and don‘t, and the people and places they leave behind.

Amanda (Susan Sullivan), a once successful TV actress, is in tough financial straits because her video star has fallen, she is divorced, and her adult daughter is bi-polar and in and out of institutions that cost money. She comes home to Buffalo, where she is still big stuff, to star as Ranevskaya in a regional theater production of “The Cherry Orchard.” She hopes it will restart her career. Her presence could also help the local theater; maybe the show will be good enough to go the Broadway, taking the director with it.

Amanda loves Buffalo (also Gurney‘s home town), which is enriched by fond memories of her grandmother and her youth.   At the theater, she reconnects with James with whom she went to acting school and who will play her brother, Leonid Andreieveitch Gayev. It‘s the 21st century, and a theater company run by a lesbian director such as Jackie (Jennifer Regan) of course practices nontraditional casting. Susan declaims: “The 19th-century land-owning Russian lady just discovers she has a black brother.”

She is pursued by another Buffalo memory, Dan (Mark Blum), who in high school wrote a musical and was her first lover. Now a mild-mannered but dogged dentist, he carries a torch. His wife is threatening to leave him, because she says she can‘t compete with his memory of Amanda; he‘d like to restart that affair. Perhaps an inside joke on Gurney‘s reputation for writing about WASPS, Dan changed his name from Rubens to Robbins — less Jewish.

Amanda has done theater in the past – even won a Drama Desk award. She has always hated the TV shows she‘s appeared on. She says, “When I said I was considering a play, he [her agent] frantically put me up for a stupid sit-com at Fox. …. A character named Granny Sweetpants. Can you believe it? They even stole the name from Li‘l Abner…I met the writers – a couple of kids fresh out of kindergarten. They wanted me to wear a gray fright wig and come into a suburban kitchen, and make jokes about Viagra. I said, ˜Thanks but no thanks, gentlemen‘.”

Then the call comes from her agent in Hollywood (ie. the estranged lover?) for a TV series. He says “the suits” have met her demands. One actor has already quit to do an airlines commercial in Kuala Lumpur. TV pays big bucks. Will she also follow the money, take the sit-com and ditch the show?

Susan Sullivan, svelte in tight jeans, orange patent high-heeled sandals, matching jacket, is dynamic as Amanda. Mark Blum exudes a sense of nostalgia and loss as Dan. Jennifer Regan makes you feel the director‘s angst about the future of the play and her theater group.

Gurney‘s clever confluence of “The Cherry Orchard” and his imagined story works well for those familiar with the Chekhov plot. Hollywood is Chekhov‘s Paris, and the theater in Buffalo is a stand-in for the cherry orchard. But the theme of connections and loyalty to roots and family is always current. So is the notion that you can‘t go home again.

It‘s clear where Gurney‘s sympathies lie; his voice is Debbie (the comical Carmen H. Herlihy), the director‘s assistant. She says, “All theatre has to do with invoking some god. Greek theatre began as a prayer to the god Dionysus. Today our gods are Hollywood celebrities. And so what we‘re really doing right now is trying to invoke our own local god, Amanda, hoping she‘ll reappear in our sacred space.”

Debbie also from time to time pronounces that we need government funding for the arts. That might require some political magic as powerful as the revolution that Chekhov‘s aristocrats didn‘t see coming.

“Buffalo Gal.” Written by A.R. Gurney. Directed by Mark Lamos. Starring Mark Blum, Carmen M. Herlihy, Jennifer Regan. Set by Andrew Jackness. Costumes by Candice Donnelly.

Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th St. .

Photos by James Leynse.

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