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Interminably chatty 'Movie' fails to tap Buffalo's 'indomitable spirit'

"Buffalo Movie," playwright Jon Elston's first comedy, began life back in 2003 as a 10-minute piece.

Man, those were the good old days.

The play, a vast departure for the usually dark and edgy Elston, co-founder with Scott Behrend of Road Less Traveled Productions, has expanded. It walks and talks . . . and talks and talks. Once fragmentary characters have been found to be mostly unlikable and shallow, and they get to full disclosure with interminable chatter about themselves and things. It would be nice to care about them; that doesn't happen.

But, wait. This is a play about Buffalo, ostensibly about the city's "indomitable spirit." Behrend also says that "Buffalo Movie" is a play "about the humor and pathos of how Buffalonians see themselves and their city."

Great. We need more pathos.

The story follows fledgling film producers Albert Jolson and Maria Shelly, and their desire to make a movie with some murky symbolism involving the old Central Terminal -- there is to be this tower, see, and there will be a chase and explosions and a love interest -- and through it all the tower survives. Indomitable spirit. The film's working title is "Erection." Jolson and Shelly are open to other suggestions.

Financial backing and a Hollywood touch are needed, and by coincidence a one-time famous director named Bob Murphy is scheduled to speak at the University at Buffalo. Murphy arrives strung-out on pot and pills, and in a haze agrees to take on Jolson and Shelly's project. The guy is a mess, though, crying about the dead Jack Lemmon, cursing Russell Crowe and Kurt Russell, and teaching the UB students that "moviemaking is all about money, drugs and adulation." Murphy's spaced-out time at the podium is very funny and a "Buffalo Movie" highlight.

P.J. Polienza, an imbecilic local movie investor and wannabe director, commandeers the movie, a nubile and talentless actress lands a role -- a casting couch decision -- a city arts official takes a shine to Murphy but hesitates on grant money, and the original screenwriters take turns going to pieces. Oh, and someone called the Buffalo Sniper is shooting -- just wounding, mind you -- city officials or interlopers damaging the community. In the middle of all of this some editorial comment on waterfront development arrives from nowhere and quickly returns.

Lost in all of this is the crisp and characteristically seamless direction by Behrend, a brick-appearing, versatile set by Eric Appleton, a film insert with multiple takes and some truly fine and funny work by David Oliver as Murphy and the natural Bonnie Jean Taylor as Maria. Lawrence Rowswell, Bob Grabowski, Katie Hart and Constance McEwen complete the cast. McEwen returns after a lengthy stage absence; she has brought needed maturity with her.

Jon Elston surely can write. He's proven that. Occasionally, "Buffalo Movie" shows that brilliance but not often enough, and the play seems enamored with itself. Elston and Behrend know plenty about filmmaking, but trying to put a happy face on some of their experiences with phonies, hacks, egos and power-grabbers doesn't work all that well. Sometimes, dialogue is inaudible. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

All in all, the crumbling Central Terminal, a sketch of which hovers over the set, unfortunately is in better shape than "Buffalo Movie."

***

"Buffalo Movie"

2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

Comedy presented through May 6 in Road Less Traveled Theatre, Market Arcade Film and Arts Centre, 639 Main St.

For more information, call 629-3069 or visit www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org.

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