[On 1 October, I posted a performance report on A. R. Gurney’s 1977 play, The Wayside Motor Inn, which I’d seen earlier at the Signature Theatre Company. In that report, I noted that the last Gurney play I’d seen was Buffalo Gal in August 2008 at Primary Stages. I’ve decided to post that pre-ROT report, dated 2 September 2008, as a point of comparison with my latest Gurney experience. I think you’ll see some consistency between my response seven years ago and the one I reported this month. (I even quoted myself from this report in my Wayside Motor Inn assessment.]
Well, the 2008-09 season has opened! Seemed early to me—Labor Day hadn’t even come and gone yet—but Primary Stages, one of our longer-running OB companies, started its program on 22 July with A. R. Gurney’s Buffalo Gal. (It had its press opening on 5 August, but its scheduled closing on 30 August was still earlier than most other companies’ initial productions. I’m also subscribing to MCC, whose first show doesn’t even open until 10 September; Primary Stages’ next production starts on 30 September.) What’s next—Christmas starting before Thanksgiving?
Oh, wait. It already does. Never mind.
Okay, enough silliness. My friend Diana and I went to 59E59, the Eastside space in which Primary Stages is working, to see Buffalo Gal on Thursday, 21 August, and it was an excellent theater evening. It’s not a great play—probably won’t go down in the canon of theater literature as a significant play—but it works on stage and was very enjoyable. It was also a relief. As I said to Diana as we were leaving, it’s been a long time since I haven’t left a theater either disappointed or worse. (I also let slip the hope that this bodes well for the season, but as soon as I said that, I remembered back to September 2004 when we saw what I thought was a wonderful production of two Ionesco one-acts, after which the season went precipitously downhill. Now I’m afraid I’ve jinxed this season!)
I’ve never been the fan of Gurney (with the exception of 1995’s Sylvia) that I have been of Guare or Lanford Wilson, say, but he’s a solid playwright—and he’s been at it for so long that he can do it with his eyes closed, I’m sure, and still come out with a creditable script. This may be a case of that to an extent—plus the fact that he’s dealing here with his own, and I assume beloved, field of endeavor: The Theater. Of course, he’s also writing about his main subject, the one he’s devoted his career to: the American WASP—and for good measure, he’s thrown in Chekhov, possibly every theater person’s most favorite playwright next to Shakespeare, and the city of Buffalo, where Gurney, like his leading lady, was born. In an interview, Gurney said, “I’ve always loved the city of Buffalo and I wanted to write about it.” Now he has.
So, Theater, WASPs, Chekhov, and Buffalo. How could he miss? Well, it’s not as if there aren’t problems with the script—not, that is to specify, the production—and so, I’ll dispense with those cavils tout de suite so as to get past them. It’s not that they aren’t significant—in another play, they’d have scuttled the whole megillah (and I ain’t talkin’ about the gorilla, neither)—but Gurney, the cast, and Mark Lamos, the director, pull it off smoothly.
I guess, since this is a pretty new play—it premièred at Williamstown in 2000 and had a regular run in . . . guess where! Buffalo, in 2002—I should give you all a run-down of the plot and all. Buffalo Gal (and, yes, the song of that title does play during the show) is a sort of backstage dramedy. Actually, to be precise, it’s an on-stage-before-rehearsals-start dramedy, but as far as sub-genres go, that’s the same thing. It’s about actors, directors, producers, stage managers, costumes, sets, props, acting . . . and the stage vs. Hollywood (in this case, TV). In the interview, Gurney doesn’t suggest that he chose Chekhov for his model for this reason, but the Russian may be one of Western theater’s most “theatrical” playwrights. Among all the modern dramatists, he’s one of the few who’ve had no success in films. (1994’s Vanya on 42nd Street by Louis Malle and David Mamet comes closest. I always wondered if Robert Altman’s 1978 film A Wedding was inspired by the Chekhov short story, but I’ve never found any confirmation of that suspicion.) Ibsen hasn’t done so well (both writers, of course, have had videos of stage productions or, in the case of A Doll’s House, a wonderful live TV production back in the ’50s), but all of Shaw’s major plays were turned into movies—and Pygmalion, of course, got double treatment: stage play-movie-stage musical-movie musical. But Chekhov, outside of Russia, has never transferred, yet his plays are considered challenges for actors and directors, loved by theater companies and, presumably, audiences. I would guess that among actors—and maybe playwrights, too—the most beloved stage piece is The Seagull. It’s all about us, after all. But Cherry Orchard, the play at the heart of Buffalo Gal, is about coming home, and that’s what Gurney wrote about in his play. Amanda, the main character, even tries to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald on the subject, saying, “Americans always want to be back somewhere. Something like that, only he said it better.” (I wondered why no one came back with Thomas Wolfe’s admonishment about home—that you can’t go there again.) The parallels Gurney constructs, though, are almost too obvious—and that’s one of the complaints I have.
Amanda (Susan Sullivan, whose professional life somewhat parallels Amanda’s), is a successful and famous TV star who’s returning home to Buffalo, where she grew up and started out on the local stage, to play Madam Ranevskaya in the production of Cherry Orchard staged by a rising local rep company. Her career, mostly because her age is approaching late-middle, has hit a slow point and she’s hoping a stage success will give her a boost. The director, Jackie (Jennifer Regan), in turn, hopes that Amanda’s stardom will attract audiences, critics, and contributors to her still-new theater, and that, on the heels of this success (she’s even anticipating a transfer to New York), she can really bring quality theater to Buffalo again. (It’s not in the script, but the Studio Arena Theatre, Buffalo’s long-time, high-rep regional company went dark earlier this year. One of its better-known successes was sending Eccentricities of a Nightingale to Broadway in 1976.) The casting of Amanda as Ranevskaya is too perfect: on her way in from the airport, the actress—who’s arrived a day before the rest of the cast to get a feel for the theater—makes the driver from the theater take the long way to by-pass the freeway and to make a detour to her grandmother’s old house. Amanda grew up there, playing on the veranda (“Amanda on the veranda,” grandma used to say), and now . . . can you all guess?—it’s for sale. (There’s no cherry orchard at the old house, but there was an apple tree!)
Of course, Hollywood keeps getting in the way. Even before Amanda shows up, the director and her staff have been on the phone with Amanda’s agent to get the signed contract. The agent is apparently delaying—he doesn’t even approve of the whole venture; he’s pushing a trashy sit-com on Fox in which Amanda would play a sort of trash-talking Estelle Getty grandmother (heavens!) role. He’s raising all kinds of objections, including to the clause that guarantees Jackie a role in the potential transfer to New York if the show is successful. Amanda herself is afraid she won’t be able to learn the lines for a stage performance again; in Hollywood, she reminds everyone, you only get pieces of the dialogue at a time, and even then you don’t have to say the words exactly as long as you get the sense right. She’s had some failed marriages and a daughter with problems, and she needs money to care for her. The Fox show is lucrative, but insulting and demeaning; however, the producers keep upping the ante and enhancing her role with each offer, relayed by the agent from the coast. But before the company can begin to worry about Amanda bolting for TV again, they learn that the leading man, who was to play Leonid, Ranevskaya’s brother, had dropped out. He and Amanda had worked together before—it’s one of the reasons she wants to do the play—but he’s immediately replaced with a local star, James Johnson (Dathan B. Williams), whom Amanda demands to meet. “James” turns out to be “Jimmy” Johnson, Amanda realizes suddenly—formerly one of the boys in her acting classes in Buffalo; he’s also African-American—the theater practices “nontraditional casting”—and Amanda quips, “The 19th-century land-owning Russian lady just discovers she has a black brother.” Finally, Amanda gets a phone message from a Dr. Dan Robbins, but she doesn’t recognize the name until a staffer calls the local dentist back and discovers he used to be Danny Ruben (Mark Blum)—her first love and the boy who got her into theater back in high school. (They wrote and put on a musical—he sends along a CD of them singing the signature song, “Say When,” which is played over the theater’s sound system for all of the assembled characters to hear. This is something else I’ll address in a moment.)
Among the other clichés are an ASM, Debbie (Carmen M. Herlihy), who’s a theater student conversant with every theater-history factoid you could imagine; and an assistant director, Roy (James Waterston), who admits he’s in theater because he just loves the words. (His parents are both deaf; at home, communication is all signs.)
I won’t be a spoiler this time and tell you how things turn out—the play is too good as a theater piece, even if it’s not top-level dramatic lit—but I will say that the drama turns on whether Amanda will do the play or not, or whether she goes back to L.A. to do the sit-com (which, in another twist of coincidence, starts taping in the middle of the play’s run—that is, she can’t do both, wouldn’t ya know). There’s also the question of whether she’ll throw it all over to stay in Buffalo with her lost love, Dan, whose wife may be leaving him because he’s never really stopped loving Amanda (or, as we might suppose, the image of Amanda, the now-famous Hollywood actress).
All of the characters say too much. I don’t mean they talk too much, but they say too much. Debbie, of course, is a chatterer, so I don’t mean her—that’s her character and cliché though it may be, it’s believable. But everyone else is constantly revealing the most private, intimate things to people who are virtually total strangers. This is especially true of Amanda—who tells everyone about her daughter’s emotional problems, her money troubles, her failed marriages. She acknowledges she has a granddaughter by her unmarried daughter (though she specifies that that little fact—the grandmother part, not the unwed-mother part!—must not appear in her program bio) and finally, while her old boyfriend is trying to convince her to run away with him, she acknowledges that he had gotten her pregnant when they were teens and she had run away to have a secret abortion in Puerto Rico. (The two are ostensibly alone on stage, but there’s no privacy with techies in the booth and others in the wings and off-stage offices.) Why she doesn’t just go on Oprah and reveal all, I don’t know—or write a lucrative tell-all book. That would solve her money problems, I’d imagine! Much of the drama and some of the plot rests on these revelations, but, my God!, aren’t some things just private? Except for Dan (James/Jimmy has left the theater by this time), the actress has never met any of these people. Remember, Amanda isn’t out of the YouTube and Facebook generation—she hasn’t grown up with her life on the ’Net; she’s a “lady” of a “certain age.” Yeah, I know, that’s an anachronism . . . but puh-leeeze . . . .
I don’t think I’ve caught all the contrivances and coincidences Gurney weaves into his plot, but I think you get the idea—it’s a little too convenient to be believed. The parallels with Cherry Orchard, the Hollywood-vs.-stage conflict, the going-home sentimentality—it’s all a little too hard to credit. If it weren’t a master craftsman like Gurney, with a terrific cast and sure-handed director, it would have fallen apart in the first scene.
So, that gets me to the acting (and, less obviously, the directing—since Lamos’s work was too subtle in this case to be clearly discernable). Make no mistake, this is a star vehicle—or the Off-Broadway equivalent of one. Amanda is the main character and is on stage most of the play. Nonetheless, the company worked as an ensemble, even though Susan Sullivan was also the best-known member of the cast by far. (James Waterston is the son of Sam Waterston, but in his own right, he’s not very well known yet.) The ensembleness of the cast was the clearest benefit of Lamos’s directing—that and the casting itself, certainly. (Gurney apparently had a hand in casting Sullivan as Amanda—he promoted her for the role.) Even despite the excesses of Gurney’s script, all the actors created believable characters and convincing circumstances. It might be hard to believe me now, but while I was watching the play unfold, even as I asked myself from time to time if Amanda should really be telling everyone her private details so readily, I never actually doubted that that was what was going on in this set of lives. (The jokes, by the way—it is a “dramedy,” as I said before—were not so predictable, though many were “theater jokes.” I had no problem chuckling away, even guffawing occasionally.) It had to be Sullivan, however, who took the prize for making this all work as well as it did. (The Times gave the production a near-rave—and also ran a feature on Sullivan about a week later—though other New York papers were less enthusiastic. I admit, because of so many previous differences with Ben Brantley’s criticism, I had trepidations about the show before I went; the review came out two weeks before I saw the play.) I’m not sure how they all managed to pull this trick off, but if I had to make an educated guess, I’d say that all the actors simply behaved as if they believed every moment of Gurney’s script. They never hesitated or flinched, and they didn’t try to run over the less credible bits. Like con artists, I guess, if actors make as if they believe what they’re doing, the audience—ahem, “marks”—will, too. I don’t know if there’s psychological justification for that assertion, but it seems true. I also assume that Lamos had a hand in this, since every cast member was doing the same level of work— Sullivan’s efforts were obviously greater, but they were all doing the same quality, even if she was doing more quantity.
(This all reminds me that I’ve just read a couple of articles, one of them a scientific essay, on magic and psychology. The scientists, who study perception and awareness, assert that magicians like Penn and Teller, the Amazing Randi, and the Great Tomsoni, have all intuitively discovered how to use the gaps in human perception and cognition. Scientists haven’t studied the phenomena yet, but stage magicians have all figured out how to manipulate our awareness. I guess I’m saying that actors and directors, too, have an intuitive understanding of the way people believe what they see and hear, even if they don’t have a scientist’s command of the structures they’re manipulating. I’m also sure that if certain people get a load of that truth—that theater people manipulate our perception—they’ll be all the more convinced that the theater is that much more blasphemous. TS to them, then!)
[The Times review to which I referred was Ben Brantley, “Stranger in Newly Strange Lands: Home and Theater,” 6 Aug. 2008; the feature on Sullivan was Patricia Cohen, “Stage Role Close to Home for a Former TV Star,” 11 Aug. 2008. Other New York City reviews were: Joe Dziemianowicz, “Susan Sullivan shines in ‘Buffalo Gal,’” Daily News 6 Aug. 2008; Frank Scheck, “Star’s Return Sheds Little Theatrical Light,” New York Post 11 Aug. 2008; Michael Feingold, “Hair’s Central Park Revival Still Shines With Youthful Energy; Buffalo Gal Skillfully Reworks Chekhov, “ Village Voice 12 Aug. 2008; and Marilyn Stasio, “Off Broadway: Buffalo Gal,” Variety 6 Aug. 2008.
[The articles on magic I mentioned were: George Johnson, “Sleights of Mind: Science meets magic, playing on what we think we know,” New York Times 21 Aug. 2007, sec F (“Science Times”): 1, 4; Stephen L. Macknik; Mac King; James Randi; Apollo Robbins; Teller; John Thompson; and Susana Martinez-Conde, “Perspective: Science and Society: Attention and awareness in stage magic: turning tricks into research,” Nature Reviews Neuroscience (advance online publication [doi:10.1038/nrn2473]) 30 July 2008, http://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nrn2473.html
Aug. 2008; and Benedict Carey, “While a Magician Works, The Mind
Does the Tricks,” New York Times 12 Aug. 2008, Sec. F (“Science Times”): 1, 3.]