Jennifer Regan and Susan Sullivan in Buffalo Gal
(© James Leynse)
Jennifer Regan and Susan Sullivan in Buffalo Gal
(© James Leynse)
A. R. Gurney's perfectly pleasant new comedy Buffalo Gal, currently making its New York premiere courtesy of Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters, laments the theater's struggle to compete with Hollywood. However, it lacks the bite that would be necessary to make its point register as more than just a passing concern.

Fading Hollywood star Amanda (Susan Sullivan) has returned to her hometown of Buffalo to headline the local theater's revival of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. The production's director, Jackie (Jennifer Regan), is worried that Amanda will fly back to Los Angeles at any moment -- a possibility greatly increased due to an unsigned contract, the prospect of a new sitcom, and the persistent offstage calls of Amanda's agent. The theater's level-headed stage manager Roy (James Waterston) and enthusiastic young assistant stage manager Debbie (Carmen M. Herlihy) are on hand to help Jackie deal with Amanda's eccentricities. However, more complications arise when Amanda finds out that a cast member has dropped out and been replaced by an African-American actor who is to portray her brother (Dathan B. Williams), and an old flame of Amanda's (Mark Blum) resurfaces, stirring up memories and emotions.

There's a certain amount of predictability to Gurney's plot, but also moments of finely wrought characterization. The relationship that develops between Amanda and Jackie is particularly noteworthy. Performed with a comic tartness by Regan, Jackie has a forthright confidence combined with an almost desperate neediness; her drive to succeed is fueled by a passion to prove herself to the kids of her lesbian lover. Amanda starts off as a broadly drawn caricature, bowing down in exaggerated humility as she meets each new person. However, her magnanimous persona is quickly revealed to have some sharp edges when it comes to making business decisions, and Sullivan nicely captures both aspects of Amanda's personality. The two women are often placed in opposition, but never quite antagonism. Gurney evidences sympathy for both characters, and it's the unequal standing of regional theater versus Hollywood sitcoms that he blames for the unpleasant predicament that they face.

Director Mark Lamos keeps the tone fairly lighthearted, even when the characters face more serious challenges. He emphasizes the humor, and some of the nonverbal exchanges between characters are absolutely priceless. As far as the supporting cast goes, Waterston has a solid, easygoing presence; Herlihy gets some of Gurney's most amusing lines, delivering them with an endearing naiveté; Williams pushes a bit too hard as James, the replacement actor; and Blum presents the right combination of annoying cluelessness and puppydog devotion.

Several of Gurney's past plays have chronicled the disappearing way of life amongst the socioeconomic class set sometimes referred to as WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). This time around, the playwright has combined this obsession (epitomized by Amanda's nostalgic yearning for her grandmother's house) with the decline of American theater. It's no accident that Gurney invokes Chekhov's Cherry Orchard, as that work also registers a quiet protest about a vanishing way of life. However, the resolution of Gurney's play feels almost too pat, issuing a gentle chiding rather than a stronger rebuke.