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    Susan Sullivan, Carmen M. Herlihy, James Waterston in Buffalo Gal
    Susan Sullivan, Carmen M. Herlihy, James Waterston

    Theme and Variation

    A.R. Gurney, Buffalo's favorite bard, brings Chekhov's divas to upstate New York in "Buffalo Gal."


    Certain names morph into easy adjectives — Pavlovian, Shavian, Shakespearean and Chekhovian. Surprisingly, Dr. Chekhov turned out a mere four major plays compared to the massive oeuvre of both Shaw and Shakespeare, yet each of his quartet has fascinated playwrights for over a century. So the question arises, ‘What is it about Chekhov that draws other playwrights to continually re-translate, adapt and even rewrite his comparatively meager dramatic output?

    Company: Primary Stages.
    Written by: A. R. Gurney.
    Directed by: Mark Lamos.
    Cast: Mark Blum (Dan), Carmen M. Herlihy (Debbie), Jennifer Regan (Jackie), Susan Sullivan (Amanda), James Waterston (Roy) and Dathan B. Williams (James).
    Music by: John Gromada.
    Sound design by: John Gromada.
    Set design by: Andrew Jackness.
    Costumes by: Candice Donnelly.
    Lighting design by: Mary Louise Geiger.
    Production stage manager: Matthew Melchiorre.

    Related links: Official site
    59E59 Theaters
    59 East 59th St.
    July 22 - Sept. 13, 2008

    The obvious answer is that, like Shakespeare, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904) had a grasp of the human condition and the human psyche that few writers have achieved. But one doesn’t need to be part of a trio of sisters longing for Moscow or an older brother longing for love to know about unattainable goals. Families frustrated by their lives’ desires were always the good Doctor’s favorite subjects.

    Variations on Chekhov's plays include Louis Malle’s lovely film “Vanya on 42nd Street” (with a script by David Mamet), which sets the classic as a play within a play in modern day New York theater, while writer/director Jeff Cohen moved his updated and renamed “Uncle Jack” to West Virginia.

    Cohen also fashioned a contemporary “Seagull: Hamptons: 1990s,” echoed in Henry Jaglom’s film, “Last Summer in the Hamptons,” whose lead character blended Mme. Arkadina from “The Seagull” — a fading but still larger than life actress — with “The Cherry Orchard’”s fading land owner Mme. Ranevskaya. And let’s not forget Regina Taylor’s “Drowning Crow,” a hip-hop flavored take on “The Seagull’"s oedipal (another of those names cum adjectives) aspects.

    A.R. (Pete) Gurney, who is to America’s WASP population what Neil Simon is to its Jews, has combined aspects of these two Chekhovian leading ladies to produce yet another in his cycle of Buffalo plays  

    A.R. (Pete) Gurney, who is to America’s WASP population what Neil Simon is to its Jews (even Simon penned “The Good Doctor,” a little musical based on Chekhov’s short stories), has also combined aspects of these two Chekhovian leading ladies to produce yet another in his cycle of Buffalo plays (“Indian Blood,” “Ancestral Voices,“ etc…), this time with Buffalo actually in the title. At 90 minutes it’s more of a short story, but that’s all the time Gurney needs to tell his little backstage tale.

    Buffalo-born Amanda (Susan Sullivan), if not a great actress, at least a great diva ala Arkadina, has long since left the stage for a hit soap and several tv series. Now she’s returned to her home town to appear as Ranevskaya in a local (but Equity) production of “The Cherry Orchard.” Larger than life, she arrives a day before the rest of the cast and to prove her egalitarianism, tells everyone to call her by her first name and to let her “bunk in” with the rest of the cast.

    The director Jackie (Jennifer Regan) and the stage manager Roy (James Waterston) play along but are not taken in. They realize that most of Amanda’s actions are merely a cover-up for her fear of being back on the stage after all these years. But assistant stage manager Debbie (Carmen M. Herlily), a student at the local college, is as thrilled as James (Dathan B. Williams) the African American actor who will be playing her brother. Pause for some requisite awkward but amusing badinage about non-traditional casting before Amanda recognizes him as a childhood acting buddy.

      Deftly directed by Mark Lamos, Gurney’s oft-time collaborator, the pace is perfect, as is the casting.
    And so it goes, against a painted drop of a cherry orchard with a few antique pieces scattered on a rehearsal stage set. Each of this dramedy’s characters wants or needs something from this “Cherry Orchard” production. For Amanda, it’s a comeback; for Jackie, the chance to direct if/when the show moves; for ASM Debbie, the choice of her future life’s path and for Amanda’s old beau, Dr. Robbins (née Rubin), another chance to trod the path not taken.

    Deftly directed by Mark Lamos, Gurney’s oft-time collaborator, the pace is perfect, as is the casting. Smith, best known as Dharma’s mother-in-law on “Dharma and Greg,” does a great Marion Seldes imitation, playing Amanda as an anxious actress with a couple of capital As, from her flowering curtsies to her overblown bonhomie. The rest of the cast functions like a polished back-up group, each with his or her moments, but the show is called “Buffalo Gal” after all.

    Would Chekhov have approved? Probably, or he might have written a fifth play called “Uncle Pete,” about Gurney’s need to go home again without actually having to live there.

    AUGUST 29, 2008

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