By Stephanie Hayes, Arts & Entertainment Editor Tuesday, January 20, 2015
ST. PETERSBURG — Family-based stories are so effective because there are so many emotional rings to grab. Pick your character, pick your moment, pick your headspace.
Natalie Symons' new play, The Buffalo Kings, offers the smorgasbord. There's the gay teen recovering from being beaten with hockey sticks in a hate crime. There's the old grandfather, slipping into the grips of Alzheimer's. There's the neurotic mother, barely hanging on as she tries to help her son. There's the 40-something brother who can't seem to get anything right, from his career to his marriage.
And yet The Buffalo Kings offers more than just personal handheld mirrors. It breaks down your guard with humor and then slays you every which way, each character taking turns hitting you in the feelings.
It's a treat to witness this new work by St. Petersburg writer Symons. It will only get better with more performances, with more chances to refine and deepen the already solid structure.
Despite all that heavy stuff mentioned above, the play is a comedy. It's current, with nods to weight loss reality TV shows, iPhone video and online dating. The humor is mostly wry and smart, with just one narrowly permissible flatulence joke.
If you're looking for more important cultural conversations, they're there. The Buffalo Kings explores some aspects of the LGBT experience. And it's set right after the Sandy Hook school shooting massacre, news of which buzzes on the King family's TV. But the script accomplishes more by mostly avoiding proselytizing, and by drilling down into one family's own imperfect dynamic, into the smaller massacres that happen in American communities every day.
It takes a second to catch the rhythm. The Buffalo Kings, directed by Freefall artistic director Eric Davis, is somewhat stylized, with the actors talking over each other, with two scenes taking place on either side of the stage at the same time.
But we sink fast into the layered, sweet relationship between teen Nick (an understated and likable Joseph Flynn), and his grandfather Harold (played with comic and heartbreaking timing by Joe Lauck). They're given texture via the sandpaper of Nick's nervous mother (Katherine Michelle Tanner) and his uncle (the always funny Brian Shea).
There's so much noise, and Harold and Nick both seem like such shells at times. But we wonder how much they're really hearing, or if anyone is hearing anyone else at all.
The set by Jim Sorensen (who plays Nick's dad, Stuart), is one of the most impressive seen at Freefall in a while, with a full middle class kitchen and a working sink. It's all washed in the warmth of Mike Wood's lighting.
And there are gifts in the details, in the old Western movie that plays quietly on the King family's TV. It's The Proud Rebel, a story about people who love each other through tragedy, yet are unable to speak.