Dorian Palumbo reviews Buffalo Heights
“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans” – Allen Saunders, 1957
When I was at Tisch School of the Arts, about a schmillion years ago, my professors used to say that it was helpful to put a post-it note above our typewriters (yes, we used typewriters. I’m old. Get over it.) that reminded us what the play was about. It was supposed to be a kind of thematic true North that would guide is in navigating the story. As I was thinking about last night’s revival of Adam Harrell’s “Buffalo Heights”, the quote above, usually attributed to John Lennon, came to mind. This theme, as theme’s go, is a pretty good one if you’re writing a comedy with elements of farce.
Fran Favre is deported from France, presumably on some sort of technicality although that’s not explained, and her sorority sister, Jean, in her capacity as High School Principal has offered Fran a job teaching French in Buffalo, NY. While the premise isn’t inherently comic, Harrell proceeds to show us that Fran is meant to be a kind of still point in a turning world of wacky characters inhabiting this particular high school. What Fran was hoping would be a soft landing in a cushy job turns out to be a nightmare of homophobia (Fran is gay), blinkered, petty ambitions, and downright dumbness on the part of these Buffalonians.
Director and Lead Actor Jake Lipman has her work cut out for her, simultaneously playing the protagonist and then, as Director, pacing a comedy that careens from highbrow references to Guillaume Appollinaire all the way out to weed jokes, Trump jokes, and a talking imaginary Buffalo named “Stumpy”.
Different plays explore different things, but as the chief purpose of a comedy is to get laughs I have to say that the jokes don’t always land with this one. That said, the house was full, and the audience seemed to be having a great time.
Lipman, as Fran, and Jordan P. Schroeder as stoner student Conner Smith (the name “Favre”, in French, also means “Smith”) have a good rapport, in the relationship meant to represent the closest, at least at first, to rational. Brittany Anikka Liu is entertaining as Piper Matthews, the play’s neurotic mess of an antagonist, channeling a bit of Reese Witherspoon’s character in “Election”.” Patrick Truhler, as dippy Security “guard” Mike, does some comedic heavy lifting, as do Maria Maloney, (Principal Washington) and Lori Funk as Piper’s distracted Mom (Congresswoman Matthews).
I did have a bit of trouble catching some of the dialogue – the proscenium setup is flanked by two speakers for music and sound effects, and over two particular scenes the SFX needed to evoke crowd noises (cafeteria, class changes) continued over the actors just a bit loudly. To be fair I was seated to the side and was closer to the speaker than the center of the house was.
As are all of the offerings in the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity (Festivity is correct) this production is paired with a charity and the audience is encouraged after the performance to make donations, in this case to the Trinity Place Shelter (http://trinityplaceshelter.org/) which is a homeless shelter for LGBTQ youth and young adults.
I would include a list of the next performances of the show, but in this case the show I attended was the last one scheduled for the festival. But the Tongue in Cheek Theater, for which Jake Lipman is also Producing Artistic Director, developed this play with a grant from the Puffin Foundation Ltd. In 2014, so I imagine they will produce it again at some point. Website for Tongue in Cheek Theater is http://www.tictheater.com/