In the last decade and a half, Buffalo has transformed at a rate no native born in the last 40 years could have imagined. It didn’t happen overnight, but suddenly, forward change – “progressivism,” to those politically unattached to that word – is in the air. We can see it, we can taste it, and on our populated stages, we can understand it.
However, those who know the before picture can be slow to accept the after. Change is difficult to believe, and maybe for some, impossible to accept. Moving on is bittersweet.
This paradigm is both to the benefit and detriment of A.R. Gurney’s “Buffalo Gal,” first produced in 2000 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and two years later in Studio Arena, with Broadway doyenne Betty Buckley in the lead role of Amanda, one of Buffalo’s last great stage dames.
A new production opened in the New Phoenix last weekend, under Richard Lambert’s direction. Barbara Link LaRou – who else but someone named Barbara Link LaRou could play this part? – leads the way this time, shedding new light on a most recent phenomenon in our resuscitated Queen City. It is not a fantastic production, to be frank, and it not a fantastic play, either. However, Lambert’s work here is effective enough to open new windows worth looking through.
Just as Amanda, now forgetful of lines at the hint of her twilight, paraphrases the impeccable Anton Chekhov, this is a mere reflection of a more astute play and production; both make us yearn for that version.
It takes place in 2000-era modern day, at which point a Buffalo theater company has begun rehearsals for Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” Gurney uses the tale of a Russian aristocrat, returning home to tend to her family’s estate – to sell and move on, or to stay and assume defeat – as a most obvious parallel device.
The trouble is, he explains his usage of it too readily. His inclusion of a wide-eyed production intern, played enthusiastically by Brittany Kucala, is maybe a handout from Gurney, acknowledging his own devices, or maybe succumbing to them. Regardless, we get the point easily and early.
Amanda’s arrival is a big deal for the company, not sure of its ability to stay afloat in Buffalo’s then-static theater scene. It also is a big deal for Amanda, who has made her way to Hollywood only to find it boring, cold and inartistic. Once home, she sees what she could have here, and what she might have had if she stayed. This is Gurney’s favorite place from which to ponder: in the bitter shadows of regret, behind a thick, crackling mask of stoicism. (He is first to reference his WASP architecture.)
LaRou is unsurprisingly divine in this role. Her entrance, about 10 minutes in, is not as grand as Amanda might prefer, though it does freshen the air, retelling the witnessed stories of this ghost-lit stage. LaRou, and her Amanda, gives you permission to trust that we will survive this, even if it’s tough going for a while. It is no wonder she was cast. She delivers handily, in small ways and big, in corners of Gurney’s often eye-rolling script that might have passed us by without such attention to the moment.
Mary Moebius, Gary Earl Ross, Steve Borowski and Willy Judson, along with Kucala, are a serviceable ensemble, though none truly ascends to LaRou’s focus, which may or may not be all their doing. Gurney gives his best lines to Amanda, which seems fitting. However, in almost every other instance, he seems unwilling to flesh out these other important roles. Meanwhile, local name-dropping and theater shorthand distract with their exhaustive unlikelihood.
Still, blocking is at times clunky, and an upstage projection of old photos, let alone a cinematic opening-title sequence, is unnecessary and distracting. There are times when I wished for LaRou and Amanda to privately serenade me, lapsing in and out of nostalgic bliss, aged hysteria and dramatic overtures. Even that would feel more realistic.
But these concerns aside, the real souvenir here is the nostalgic glimpse at a Buffalo not so distant in our past but tangibly so close. The Buffalo of 2000 – and its revving-up theater scene – is far and away a different landscape than that of today. What feels oddly dated is incalculably refreshing, as if we triumphantly know what Amanda doesn’t. Her Chekhovian ending leaves you wondering which city will shepherd her next stage. If she were returning today, that ending might not be so unclear.
What: “Buffalo Gal”
When: Through May 24
Where: New Phoenix Theatre on the Park, 95 N. Johnson Park