Nostalgia appears in every scene of Buffalo Gal, A. R. Gurney’s latest play currently in performances at 59E59 Theaters. It is in the people, the clothes, the furniture and it also appears in the music of the show. It is a sweet, simple melody, written by the protagonist’s childhood sweetheart once upon a time. As it plays, she clasps her hands to her heart and stares into the distance as her eyes tear up.
That moment pretty much sums up Buffalo Gal, a play about the temptation of looking into the past and the fear of moving into the future. Amanda, a successful Hollywood actress has returned to her home town of Buffalo to star in a production of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard. Decked out in tight jeans, high heels and enormous sunglasses, Amanda is a household name – and terrified of setting foot on stage. A self-proclaimed “shallow WASP with a drinking problem,” Amanda’s career is dissolving and her finances are a mess. She needs this play almost as badly as it needs her – which is very badly, indeed.
Jackie, the director, is nervous about Amanda. She’s not sure how she’ll do in the play – but she has to do well. Returning to Buffalo after years on the West Coast, Amanda identifies deeply with the play. Her hometown has changed. Her grandmother’s house is for sale. She is struggling to join her past and her future and somehow make sense of it, and she thinks the play will do that.
Jackie and Amanda are joined by Debbie, the idealistic intern full of useless facts, and Roy, a stoic set designer who says he likes the theater because of the all the talking it requires. If he were in the audience, he would have liked this play very much. The entire show takes place in one place – an artistically sloppy stage, where this unusual group talks ceaselessly – about Chekov, about Aamanda, and about the state of theater itself nowadays.
All of these subjects are interesting and make for good conversation amongst this intelligent and articulate cast of characters, but at times the dialogue drags and one wonders how much more can be actually be said. Fortunately the slower moments are propelled by an extremely strong cast, all of whom put forth admirable effort in their roles. Susan Sullivan is perfectly cast as Amanda, a woman of regal age and childlike naiveté. Jennifer Regan makes Jackie a truly sympathetic character, a woman of good intentions struggling to do something useful. Mark Blum’s Dan, a childhood sweetheart of Amanda’s, borderlines on obsessive but the two do share some sweet moments together, and Dathan B. Williams’ James is nothing short of delightful. Carmen M. Herlihy’s earnest, over educated Debbie provides some much needed comedic relief, and James Waterson gives deliberate weight to each of his statements
The classic questions of artistic fulfillment vs. financial success, of notoriety vs. accomplishments, and of obligation to self rather than others are all raised. These questions have never been answered and probably never will.