In the WASP's nest

A.R. Gurney returns to well-trod territory with his new comedy, Buffalo Gal.

BUFFALO SOLDIER Gurney prepares a new homage to his upstate town.

BUFFALO SOLDIER Gurney prepares a new homage to his upstate town. Photograph: James Leynse

A.R. Gurney may be Buffalo’s most notable cultural export (at least pre–spicy chicken wings), and the pride—or something like that—is mutual. His new work, Buffalo Gal, opening Tuesday at Primary Stages, is the second of his plays to cite his storied hometown by name (a youthful 1958 effort called Love in Buffalo was the first), and one in a long lineup that’ll take you to that 400-miles-away burg. “Almost every play he writes has something to do with Buffalo,” says director Mark Lamos, who previously helmed the writer’s Indian Blood and Big Bill.

“I have a subject,” Gurney, 77, readily concedes. “Just as Horton Foote is very much at home in southern Texas, I’m very much at home in Buffalo—in the Eastern establishment world, let’s say.”

Let’s say, indeed. Though Buffalo Gal is ostensibly about an actor returning to her hometown regional theater as her once-bright TV career has begun to dim, it’s really another variation on Gurney’s central theme: the painfully stiff upper lips—and often-brittle vulnerabilities—of the species known as WASP, which he’s anatomized in plays ranging from The Dining Room to Far East. “His characters have these carapaces around them, but the emotional life is smoldering underneath, even when they don’t know it,” Lamos says. “It never becomes a ghastly tragedy, but it’s always hinted at in the corner of the play that these characters have gone through a great deal of pain. They’re trained to smile through that pain, never to give in to it.”

Buffalo Gal’s leading lady is no exception. Ex–sitcom star Amanda (Susan Sullivan) returns to her upper-middle-class Buffalo roots fully aware that her Hollywood star is falling, but determined to keep up appearances in a local production of The Cherry Orchard. “I try occasionally not to write this kind of character, but you tend to fall into those old grooves,” the playwright says with a good-natured laugh. “I like to put these characters under some kind of pressure—to challenge them, contrast them.”

Not everyone agrees. Gurney recalls that an early New York review labeled him a “miniaturist”—a designation that still rankles. “When I read that, I thought, Aw, Jesus—what do I do, paint tiny little people? Grandma Moses, is that what I am? I mean, would you say Faulkner was a miniaturist? I’m not sure the people I write about are small people. They’ve got a lot on their plates—big things going on in their lives.”

What’s gotten small, Gurney contends, is the appetite of the theatergoing audience. “We used to write plays with two acts,” he points out. “Now you can almost sense the sigh of relief when the audience picks up the program and it says the play will be done straight through. Nobody wants to smoke anymore, and the audience is no longer interested in celebrating itself as an audience. Now you go, you applaud, and you go home.”

In its original production at the 2001 Williamstown Theatre Festival, Buffalo Gal had two acts; at Primary Stages, it’s been streamlined to run without an intermission. “You have to reconstruct what you’re doing to give a play that headlong quality that we seem to want,” Gurney laments. “It becomes down and dirty.”

Lamos argues that such limitations actually play to Gurney’s strengths. “What I think is beautiful about his writing is that it’s circumscribed with a certain grace,” Lamos says. “He’s very much about economy—both what’s actually spent on a production and how few words he uses to get a point across. All three plays I’ve done with him started out as two-acts, and I feel he’s been refreshed by the challenge—that he enjoyed the craft of putting the acts together.”

Brevity has also been a key virtue of a series of politically pointed, even experimental plays he’s written in recent years for downtown’s Flea Theater, including Screen Play, Mrs. Farnsworth and Post Mortem. Gurney relished working with the more youthful crowd at the Tribeca venue. “I used to teach in the humanities department at MIT, and I miss the younger voices and younger attitude,” he says. “You can get it more readily down there.”

If Buffalo Gal is more characteristic of Gurney’s best-known work, its theatrical subject sounds a theme as dear to him as his vaunted class consciousness. Unlike his protagonist, Amanda, the writer never struck out for the greener pastures of Hollywood. He claims that “the immediacy of bonding, the whole notion of being part of a theater tribe, that’s still worth working for.”

Buffalo Gal is at Primary Stages.