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ANCESTRAL VOICES: A FAMILY STORY

THE BASICS: This sweet, memoir-like, devised-for-staged-reading play by A. R. Gurney is at last getting its WNY premiere, thanks to the Road Less Traveled Productions, who have been championing Gurney with a multi-year retrospective. The production, directed the by RLT’s Scott Behrend, runs weekends at the Market Arcade Centre through May 13th. The play runs about 90 minutes; there is no intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Buffalo and environs. Late 30’s into the war years. Young Eddie (read A. R. Gurney) finds his safe, privileged world rocked by the unexpected split-up of his grandparents. And he’s not alone. When grandpa’s oldest friend horns in on grandma, precipitating a divorce and remarriage, pretty much all of Old Buffalo is talking. What’s a respectable family to do?
THE CAST, THE PLAY, THE PRODUCTION: As our protagonist (and narrator) Eddie, Bob Grabowski quite handily transforms himself from scamp to young-man-coming-of-age. Playing “young” is always a hazard for actors; Grabowski does a pretty darn good job. Keep an eye on his highly expressive face. Dave Hayes and Lisa Vitrano play Eddie’s parents, Harvey and Jane. Hayes is low key but very competent as the Suck-up Son-in-Law and Flustered Dad. Vitrano is quite touching as Eddie’s heartbroken, (grand)father-partial mom. Veterans Joseph Natale and Kathleen Betsko Yale play the estranged grandparents. Ms. Betsko Yale intones her lines with a charming patrician grandness. Natale is rather subdued, but seems more real. He’s at his twinkly best explaining to his grandson the Ways of the Gentleman Woodsman. Both these two have secondary roles that I wish were played more sharply at variance from their primary ones…
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The play (as Eddie explains at the outset) has apparently had its troubles. It shifts locale a lot for a conventional stage piece, but is too conversational to be a novel. It might still make a good screenplay, if Gurney has the inclination. As sweet and sentimental as it is, VOICES is static in the manner of virtually all staged readings. The production choices here don’t help. If ever there was a play crying out for an Old Buffalo slide show, this is it. All we get visually is a large, ungainly looking tree, some primitive black house shapes and an oriental rug. The occasional scraps of music played under the dialogue are too quiet, and prove a mere distraction. Director Behrend (or is it the playwright himself?) does achieve one fine moment, when Grandma and Grandpa, who, like all the others in the show, have been simply reading to the audience, turn and look at one another. Clearly, someone needed to bring more stagecraft to ANCESTRAL VOICES. It’s vintage Gurney, though, and quite a treat even without it.
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*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the
Rating System)


ONE BUFFALO:  This means trouble.   A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both.  Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS:  Passable, but no great shakes.  Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is pr
oblematic.
  Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS:  I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater.  If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS:  Both the production and the play are of high caliber.  If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS:  Truly superb–a rare rating.  Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart.  Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

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