By Peter Nason, Theatre Critic Saturday, June 6, 2015
I've been complaining recently about the lack of new works in the Bay Area. Yes, theatres here do classics and offbeat but iconic shows as well as way too many bedroom farces. But new works, works created by locals who have something to say, are just too few and too far between. And when they get here, we don't seem to notice or applaud their appearance. Well, freeFall is doing the world premiere of a brand new show by local playwright Natalie Symons. And one thing that we all know about freeFall is that when they do something, they sure do it right.
Symons' THE BUFFALO KINGS deserves the lenghty standing ovation it received on opening night. It is a tremendous production, filled with hilarity and tears, dark comedy and meaningful, moving dialogue.
Every show at freeFall seems to have a different looks, a different audience configuration, and a different twist. Their twists have become so frequent that it seems that a freeFall twist is now verging on the predictable. That's why I love the twist in the freeFall telling of THE BUFFALO KINGS; the twist here is...that there is no twist. This is just straight forward theatrical excellence, beautifully produced and exquisitely acted.
THE BUFFALO KINGS may try to tackle way too many subjects in just over two hours, but it does so with bravura, gusto and beloved characters that we enjoy no matter how flawed. In some ways, it's like a combination of Ordinary People, Iris, The Matthew Shepard Story and August: Osage County. (Its August connection is in its ability to deal with heavy familial subject matter in a meaningful, brilliantly entertaining way, eliciting tears and much laughter; but it's far enough from August territory that you don't need to worry that it could be retitled December: Erie County.)
Set in Buffalo during the Christmas season, the quirky King family is gathering for the holidays. It's 2012, and the Newtown massacre is plastered across the TV's headline news channels. In their lovely home, the King's guitar playing, boxer-donning grand-patriarch, Harold, is losing his mind with Alzheimer's but refuses to see a doctor. His gay teenaged grandson was earlier beaten "by an inch of his life" and may be potentially suffering from seizures due to it. Harold's divorced daughter has just gotten an awful new perm (she wants to look like Julia Roberts, but she looks more like Julianna Margulies after putting a wet finger in a wall socket), and she is not handling recent events well, to put it mildly. A visible gun rack acts as a harbinger that things will turn sour by show's end. But human behavior does not allow for predictability, and one of the biggest strengths of THE BUFFALO KINGS is that the audience cannot quite predict where exactly it's heading. In a jaded world, where we usually can figure out every "Criminal Minds" plotline, this is a major plus.
It's also entertaining as hell.
As Harold, Joe D. Lauck breaks your heart and makes you laugh at the same time. Sitting in a chair in only his boxer shorts, gnawing on cherries (and worrying about the "bones" in them), the world is running around him and yet doesn't stop to notice his presence. But we notice, and the actor gives the sort of performance that will be talked about long afterwards. Near the end of the show, he gives a monologue that leaves the audience in tears. It is so emotionally powerful--a man losing the world but making one last verbal stand, a plea of sorts. It's both beautifully written and acted.
There's a lot of humor in the heartbreak. As a perennial loser, Sam, who finds receiving love or respect from even his mother an impossible task, Brian Shea once again proves why he is one of the area's finest actors--and also one of the funniest. Whether he's describing his stint in Ocala to a group of people who have no idea what Florida is (they constantly mistake Orlando for Ocala), or just walking across the stage in body jacket and hood, he will leave you in stitches. He stole the show in American Stage's God of Carnage last summer, and he steals the show here as well.
Just as funny is Chris Crawford as Pete Burke, who gives some of the finest non-verbal reactions seen in a long time. If you are teaching subtext to students, then bring them to THE BUFFALO KINGS and have them watch the scene when Pete is trying some of vegan Olive's bizarre animal-shaped hors devours. Never before has the word "delicious" sounded so nauseous. As a comic foil, the outsider who gets to see this clan in their royal insanity, Pete is a fully rounded character and has some of the most moving speeches full of surprising depth. It's easy to make those who are ultra-religious, or outwardly proclaiming their love of God, as jokes, fodder for the rest of the cast (like in parts of Steel Magnolias). Here, his religion may be batted away by Olive, but the playwright gives him a rich humanity equaled to the other characters. And when he tells the troubled young Joseph that he admires his strength, we believe him.
As the grandmother, Estelle, Jenny Aldrich starts off slowly--we don't grasp her as well as some of the others. But she soon becomes a great contrast to the rest of the cast, flippant and dismissive when trouble is at hand. Estelle has the honor of getting some of the best verbal darts of the evening.
As the boy, Nick, Joseph Flynn, who was so good as Dusty in The Burnt-Part Boys, is very different here but just as powerful. Much of the show rests on his shoulders, and he is an actor with the wear-with-all to do it. He's also one of the normal souls onstage, an audience surrogate. We really sense that he cares for his grandfather, and with his iPhone in hand, constantly films the old man playing guitar. His speech in Act 2, a glorious rant against a character who deserves it for much of the play, is brilliantly delivered.
Jim Sorensen as Stuart is a strong presence onstage, with a deeply commanding voice, and he along with Nick becomes the sanest person onstage. We still don't know what led him to marry into this family, but we sure know why he got out of it.
The central role of Olive is handled gloriously by Katherine Michelle Tanner. She becomes both the villain of the piece and also the main character, the one we follow and feel for and the one that repels us. She is as emotionally messy as her frizzy Oprah hair, and her family is a reflection of this mania. But Tanner shines in all of Olive's imperfect glory; we understand her being overprotective toward Nick--she doesn't want to lose her son or her sanity. It's a courageous performance of a deeply flawed person, brilliantly portrayed.
I keep wondering how freeFall can keep topping themselves with their creative sets, and here (thanks to scenic designer Jim Sorensen) they have done it again with a gargantuan home interior, complete with working faucet and flat screen television. It's an awesome sight to behold--the upper middle class homey cage where this crazy clan deserves to live in all of their psycho splendor.
Mike Wood's lighting couldn't be better, and Eric Davis' costumes and sound design work wonderfully. Best of all is Davis' direction. He gets the most out of his cast, and his exquisite staging remains the strongest in the area. There's not a missed note under his guidance. (Well, actually there may be one missed note, a minor one. A video plays at the end of the show, and it seemed unnecessary to me. The show works in and of itself, without something like this that pushes rather than eases; we don't need our emotions milked when the power of the piece had already been beautifully earned on the stage by Mr. Davis' marvelous cast.)
Natalie Symons has scribed a memorable, heart-tugging, vastly entertaining show, full of wondrous quips and well-drawn characters. It deserves a long life after the freeFall run. It has something for everyone--maybe too many good things...but that's scarcely a problem.