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The Fringe Play as First Date: A Review of “The Buffalo Play”

The Buffalo Play

Conventional wisdom has it that plays make lousy first dates. You sit beside someone you’ve only just met, avoiding eye contact and conversation–a terrific start! To which I reply: It depends on the play. If it’s as original, thought-provoking, and wildly entertaining as The Buffalo Play, which premiered last night at the Tank’s intimate 56-seater, then you’ll probably find yourself discussing it heatedly as you walk down 9th Avenue at dusk, the ice more melted than broken.

It’s a testimony to the talent of cowriters and costars Ciara Griffin and Kendra Potter that the titular buffalo apparently never existed. The “calfnapping” incident that sets the story in motion is nowhere to be found online, yet everything about it–from the well-meaning social justice warrior who bundles a stray calf into her SUV to protect it from coyotes, to the mob of virtue-signalers who dog-pile her on social media–is completely believable. This achievement is all the more impressive considering the oneiric treatment the story receives; the play shifts between dream and waking as between two sides of the crack that artfully divides the heroine’s cell, only to meet in the middle where a tuft of grass literally grows–a playful symbol of life unbridled.

And when in the end the “mostly vegetarian” SJW sheds her bridle and a symbolic percentage of her clothes (in Germany she’d be naked and covered in blood) and devours a live squirrel and tangles herself in a web of umbilical cords torn from her own abdomen and becomes herself a wild animal–I saw in all this the bestiality of Euripides’ Bacchae, the sickness of Cronenberg’s Spider, the totalitarian warning of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, while my date, as she told me later, saw in it a symbol of healing, of belonging–to the herd, to nature. And these wildly divergent interpretations show just how refreshingly ambiguous and free of “messages” this play truly is–and, dare I add, how differently men and women see things.

Jeremy Sher and Ciara Griffin

On one thing we fully agreed: Jeremy Sher is phenomenal as Hank, the SJW’s redneck cellmate. He is real right down to the distressed circle on the back pocket of his jeans from the perennial can of Copenhagen. This last is admittedly more to the credit of costume designer Sarah Kelly, but it’s also the least of her achievements in a play that features not one but two actors in highly original–and functional–buffalo costumes. The first is Kendra Potter as the bereaved mother, the second, little Sukha Belle Potter, who can’t be a day over six, yet steals the show as the erstwhile calf, prompting my date to whisper the highest praise a child of Bacchus could hope for: “I could eat her up.”

Then, too, there was Mason Wagner’s nuanced lighting design, which, together with Marshall Granger’s videos and Peter Musante’s sound, alternately shrinks the space into a stifling cell and grows it into a sprawling, grassy plain. And there are stretches of lyrical poetry to fill that plain. And ideas aplenty to graze on.

And when it was over I was reminded once more of the theater’s power to bring people together, to get them outside their own heads and safe spaces. Instead of sitting in a bar taking turns talking about ourselves, my date and I spent the evening discussing issues and ideas: the perils of digital media, the misguided zeal of well-meaning people, the different worlds we inhabit as we pace the same cell.

Griffin comforts the calf, played by Sukha Belle Potter.

And yes, she’s the one who suggested I work our date into this review. I demurred at first, pleading journalistic objectivity, but when I sat down at my laptop today I realized she was right. Isn’t the social aspect of theatre the whole point? And doesn’t theatre’s survival depend precisely on people’s treating it as a social event?

So I say forget conventional wisdom. Talk to that special someone you’ve been crushing on and invite them to see The Buffalo Play. It’s running at The Tank until May 23. Or take them to another fringe play that’s as raw and real as life itself. New York’s stages are full of them. Or, I don’t know, stay home alone and watch Netflix again. Life isn’t for everyone.

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