Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Buffalo Gal

Susan Sullivan is fabulous. I haven’t seen her on stage since she did A. R. Gurney’s play The Fourth Wall six years ago. Before that, I don’t know if I’d seen her anywhere since her days on my much-loved soap, “Another World,” in the early 70s. That doesn’t mean she hasn’t been working -- her bio is full of credits -- it’s just that I’m not a TV-watcher and that’s primarily where she works.

She’s certainly where she should be now, though, and once again it’s in a Gurney play. She’s a natural on stage, playing a television star with a fading career who returns to her hometown of Buffalo to play Madam Ranevskaya in a local theater production of The Cherry Orchard.

Art imitating life? Hardly. Amanda, the overly dramatic actress, can barely remember a line of dialogue at at time. Sullivan is letter perfect in every way -- dialogue, movement, timing. The play, presented by Primary Stages and directed by Mark Lamos, is most alive when she’s on stage.

Gurney plays are never plot-driven, and Buffalo Gal is no exception. He’s a playwright who likes to develop his humor from his characters, usually WASPs dealing with some situation, like the selling of the family home.

Unfortunately, the humor here isn’t as sharp as it usually is, especially when compared to Gurney’s Indian Blood, which Primary Stages presented two summers ago. The WASP angle isn’t as much a focus in this play, although Amanda readily identifies herself as one. Instead the play relies on a great many clichés, such as the mobility of theatre and the vapidness of television, the low wages and obscurity of one and the fame and fortune of the other. “In the theatre you can rise to the top of your career and you barely get a nod from your doorman,” Amanda says.

The tension of the plot, and really the word tension might be a bit too strong, hinges on whether Amanda will stay with the show after she gets a juicy TV offer just before rehearsals are to begin. You won’t have any trouble predicting the end.

This is not to say that I didn’t have fun. The show is 90-minutes, with no intermission, which I always like, and it’s an enjoyable way to spend a hot summer evening. (When the play premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2001 it was two acts. I’m glad it’s been tightened.) Carmen M. Herlihy is a treat as Debbie, an earnest college intern at the regional theatre to which Amanda has returned. She’s working on her thesis on the importance of amateur theatre in America and frequently interrupts conversations with her glorified thoughts on the nobility of the profession or to proudly cite a famous person who was from Buffalo -- Katherine Cornell, one of the Flying Wallendas. She makes Debbie believable and not just a starry-eyed stereotype.

The show also features featuring Mark Blum, Jennifer Regan, James Waterston and Dathan B. Williams.

Performances of Buffalo Gal, which opened last night, have been extended by two weeks and will now run through Sept. 13 at 59E59 Theaters. Tickets are available by calling (212) 279-4200. Special "Artist/Audience Talkbacks" will follow performances on Aug. 7, 14 and 21.

For more information visit or call (212) 840-9705.

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