By Mark Leib, Theatre Critic Wednesday, January 21, 2015
It’s heartening to see a Bay area playwright write as well as Natalie Symons does in her winning tragi-farce, The Buffalo Kings. And it’s heartening to see that playwright’s work given a production as first-class as the one you’ll find over at freeFall Theatre.
On Jim Sorensen’s stunningly beautiful set of the King family living room and kitchen, seven characters embrace, snipe at, lecture, excoriate, adore and psychologically strip bare one another for two precious acts of laughter and nihilism, and they do it so ardently, my only major regret is that the evening’s not longer.
You think your family’s dysfunctional? Well, say hello to the Kings: there’s suicidal wife and mother Olive (the impeccable Katherine Michelle Tanner), her 15-year-old son and hate-crime victim Nick (the poignantly sincere Joseph Flynn), Olive’s hypochondriac brother Sam (the psychotically flustered Brian Shea), her unfaithful ex-husband Stuart (perfectly cast Sorensen), viciously honest matriarch Estelle (the somewhat unfocused Jenny Aldrich), and patriarch-with-Alzheimer’s Harold (the also inexact Joe. D. Lauck). There’s one other character — family friend, and vastly outnumbered former-crack-dealer-turned-Christian Pete Burke (the delightful Chris Crawford) — and when they’re all together at Christmas, their mutual desperation is hilarious (as William Blake said, excess of sorrow laughs).
Yes, fractured family reunions are a staple of contemporary theater (for example, in August: Osage Country), but Symons has an original vision that puts new spin on this trope. What she wants to tell us in Kings is that conflict and unhappiness aren’t proofs of personal failure, that the search for constant joy can only result in defeat, and that it’s positively normal to face crises as one proceeds through a lifetime. You don’t have to agree in order to enjoy The Buffalo Kings; but thanks to Symons’ canny writing, you at least have to consider that, weather patterns being what they are, maybe it’s not entirely sane to expect nothing but sunshine.
As I said, the play’s too short: the second act seems abbreviated, in need of one further scene. But aside from this, The Buffalo Kings is an enchanting, stimulating pleasure. Kudos to Eric Davis (also the director) for investing in a local author; and kudos to Symons for being so well worth the risk.