A.R. Gurney updates Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and moves the action to-where else?-his native Buffalo in the uneven Buffalo Gal. Like the great Chekhov play, Gurney's comedy revolves around an actress returning home and has a juicy role for an actress of a certain age. Unlike Chekhov, however, Gurney doesn't surround his leading lady with interesting supporting characters and doesn't introduce much conflict until the final 10 minutes of the 90-minute show.
The stylish, WASPy actress in Buffalo Gal, Amanda (Susan Sullivan), has returned to her hometown to play Madam Ranevskaya, the aristocratic actress who decides to sell her beloved cherry orchard and return to Moscow. Amanda has made a name for herself on TV and in movies in Los Angeles, but lately the offers have dried up. Thus an on-stage stint at a well-regarded regional theater makes sense. But Amanda, who hasn't done theater in years, worries that she won't be able to remember her lines after years of paraphrasing and improvising on camera. Even though she makes grand Ranevskaya-esque gestures, including a deep curtesy when she meets someone, deep down she's insecure about whether she can pull off such a demanding part.
None too subtly, Gurney plays up the parallels between Amanda and Chekhov's heroine. Besides the fact that her career is fading and she feels sentimental about the place where she grew up, Amanda learns that her beloved grandmother's house is for sale. At times the parallels feel forced. And some of the dialogue isn't believable, especially the scholarly theater references by the intern Debbie (Carmen M. Herlihy), a college student who sounds more like a professor. Gurney gives Debbie a few funny lines, but she and the other supporting characters aren't nearly as compelling as Amanda. Roy (James Waterston) is a likable but bland stage manager, Jackie (Jennifer Regan ) is a young, ambitious director who hopes Amanda will help put her theater on the map, and James (Dathan B. Williams) is a local African-American actor chosen at the last minute to play Ranevskaya's brother. Finally, there's Dan (Mark Blum), who dated Amanda when they were teenagers before her parents sent her away to boarding school. Now a dentist with a wife, kids, and grandchildren, Dan still carries a torch for his old sweetheart.
Amanda mists up when she hears "Say When," the song Dan wrote for them to perform years ago. It's a sweet, vintage-sound tune, with music by Tom Cabaniss and lyrics by Gurney. (Perhaps the prolific Gurney should write a musical about WASPs shuffling off to Buffalo country clubs.) Sullivan, best known for her roles on TV shows like Falcon Crest and Dhama and Greg, is perfect as Amanda. Fit and youthful looking, Sullivan is always convincing in a part that could have been written for her. Her costars do a decent job lending support, but they're stuck with fairly generic characters.
First produced at the Williamstown Theater Festival in 2000 and then at Buffalo's Studio Arena Theatre in 2002, Buffalo Gal doesn't rank among Gurney's finest plays. Even the entertaining Sullivan and director Mark Lamos, who staged Gurney's much sprightlier Indian Blood at Primary Stages two seasons ago, can't make this old "Gal" spring to life.