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Looking back; Nostalgia plays role in two productions

It's easy to get lost in A.R. Gurney's 2000 play "Ancestral Voices," a charming and beautifully crafted story about an aristocratic Buffalo family set just before America's entry into World War II.

The show, a product of an unsuccessful novel that Gurney split into two plays (the other being "Indian Blood"), was written to be performed as a staged reading. It opened last Friday in the Road Less Traveled Theatre in a nearly flawless production directed by Scott Behrend.

This very Gurney play, in its very Gurney way, features a lightly fictionalized version of the playwright's own family. It deals with what was then the shocking separation of his grandparents and their attempt to carry on amid the crumbling upper echelons of Buffalo society at a time when divorce in the city's patrician circles posed certain social challenges.

It is a piece of nostalgia about nostalgia -- the theatrical equivalent of peeling an old Polaroid out of a family photo album, running it through an Instagram filter and reprinting it on vintage paper. It is expertly rendered and movingly delivered, as local productions of Gurney's plays often are, but also many times removed from reality.
Take out concerns about the pitfalls of nostalgic thinking, which may be mine alone, and it is easy enough to appreciate "Ancestral Voices" for what it is: one eminently gifted playwright's extremely well-crafted personal reflection on his childhood and the charming problems of his family. This production, keenly directed by Behrend and acted by such irresistible talents as Kathleen Betsko Yale (as Gurney's grandmother), Lisa Vitrano (as his mother) and Bob Grabowski (as Gurney, known in this play as Eddie) and smartly designed by David Butler, makes this a simple task.

But to anyone who acknowledges that Buffalo is now in the midst of a grassroots cultural revival which is exciting for reasons mostly unrelated to aristocratic notions of success, Gurney's poetic lamentations of lost greatness ring somewhat hollow.

To the Buffalonians in Gurney's play circa 1944, the city had already lost much of what they considered to be its luster. More than half a century later, by their standards, the place ought now to be a total no-man's land, where the blue-bloods of Gurney's childhood have mostly keeled over, taking the city's treasures with them to the grave.

But we know, by the recent exponential growth of our city's cultural activity and a pulsing new sense of optimism among many of the city's younger residents, that this belies the ascendant spirit of the region.

Which is why it's perhaps fortuitous that this show is the final one in the company's three-year Gurney retrospective. We're rightfully proud of Gurney, the very definition of a local-boy-made-good, and of the expertly wrought and insightful dramas he creates about a distant era. But after a good long look, sometimes it's wise to close the photo album for a while and put it back up on the shelf.

"Ancestral Voices"    

3 1/2 stars (out of 4)

WHEN: Through May 13    

WHERE: Road Less Traveled Theatre, 639 Main St.    

TICKETS: $15 to $30    

INFO: 629-3069 or www.roadlesstraveled-productions.org

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Songs of yesterday

Gurney's indulgence in nostalgia is tempered by an unmatched skill for dialogue, narrative, humor and charm. The same can't quite be said for Roger Bean's similarly backward-looking revue, "The Marvelous Wonderettes," a show that attempts to combine a greatest-hits tour of 1950s and '60s music with a cheeky and compelling narrative.

In O'Connell and Company's production, which opened last week in the company's home at Erie Community College's North Campus in Williamsville under Mary Kate O'Connell's direction, it succeeds on the first count but only by slim degrees. The show's transparent conceit involves a quartet of high school girls who are singing a kind of impromptu concert at their high school prom, and who reunite to do the same at their 10-year reunion.

This piece is a shabbily constructed tune-delivery system which, like most productions that do not know whether they are revues or musicals, settles on a mediocre combination of the two. Fortunately, it also contains a thoroughly engaging cast whose members muddle through Bean's tossed-off situations with the kind of quirky humor and skill worthy of a much better show. None of the cast is particularly suited to the taxing vocal demands of many of the song selections, but they make up for it in other ways.

Victoria Perez, who consistently lights up any stage on which she appears, gives us an assertive, playfully sarcastic performance, nicely counterbalanced by Maria Droz's particularly advanced comic chops. They're ably assisted in carrying the feather-light weight of this show by the hilarious, gum-smacking Sara Kovacsi and Kelley Jayne Burns, who evinces just the right sort of dorky charm for her character.

The result is watchable, if not exactly profound.

"The Marvelous Wonderettes"    

2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

WHEN: Through May 13    

WHERE: Gleasner Hall, Erie Community College North Campus, 6205 Main St., Williamsville    

TICKETS: $15 to $25    

INFO: 848-0800 or www.oconnelland-company.com

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com