Everything you need to know about Buffalo in its current moment of renewal, you can learn from “Buffalo Rises,” Road Less Traveled Productions’ series of short plays that opened Friday night in the Market Arcade Film and Arts Centre.
Taken as a whole, this extraordinary collection of eight plays by local writers is as intelligent, as heartfelt and as good-humored a portrait the City of Buffalo’s rumbling resurrection as any company has yet produced.
Each piece animates some essential element of Buffalo 2.0, from its fast-waning inferiority complex and its persistent racial disparities to its charming attachment to old-world kitsch, its newfound embrace of optimism and its seemingly genetic affinity for Tim Hortons gift cards.
The program begins on a serious note, with a lyrical attempt by playwright Gary Earl Ross to throw a historical lifeline to James Benjamin Parker (Willie Judson), a black man who subdued President William McKinley’s assassin and then was promptly erased from the history books.
“You are a hero, and nobody will let history forget it,” Parker’s daughter Pearl says in the play, adapted from Ross’ own novel “Blackbird Rising.” History did much worse than merely forget Parker’s contribution, but we can thank Ross for setting the record straight.
Next up is Kate McAneney’s saccharine-sweet piece “Good Neighbors,” about the love-hate relationship many Millennials and Gen-Xers have with their Rust Belt home. The best line, delivered by Darleen Pickering Hummert to a stuffy Buffalo ex-pat played by Bonnie Jean Taylor who has convinced herself she is better than Buffalo: “You know what your problem is? You don’t know what better is.” True that.
Justin Karcher’s wonderful “On the Eastern Short of Lake Erie” is by far this playwright’s best work to date, a poetic exploration of Great Lakes malaise brimming with beautifully rusty imagery. Toward the start, one character obviously standing in for Karcher compares the Skyway to Buffalo’s “detached spinal cord.” The poetry only gets more evocative.
Jon Elston’s comedy “Bride of Buffalo Movie” is the Buffalo ethos simmered down to its essence. It’s a side-splitting sendup of Buffalonians’ often warped image of themselves and a characteristically neurotic tribute to the unsung heroes of its current cross-cultural explosion.
Matthew Crehan Higgins’ monologue about his daily runs past the Gates Circle fountain, given a sensitive interpretation by Jonathan Shuey, captures something beautiful about the way we fall in love with a city. As he dreams of making a new life in San Francisco or somewhere else, he can’t shake his love for Buffalo’s ugly clouds, its grey patina and its peculiarly vacant beauty. The night ends on a wonderfully absurd note, with Donna Hoke’s tongue-in-cheek sendup of Buffalo’s “City of Good Neighbors” vibe set in a visiting ex-pat’s car during a winter traffic jam. If there were an award for most creative way to work Tim Hortons, Loganberry martinis and beef on weck into a play, Hoke would win, hands down.
Behrend’s inclusion of work by local visual artists, so central to the city’s quickly shifting identity from downtrodden sports town to vibrant cultural playground, works in a few spots but distracts in others. Even so, John Rickus’ lighting and Reed Rankin’s projection design make the artwork and the actors look as good as could be hoped.
When the story of Buffalo’s re-emergence as a cultural player is written decades from now, chroniclers will be thankful that Behrend and his company recruited such a talented group of writers to reach up into the air and pull down the ineffable spirit of this rising city, at this moment of foment, before it floats away.
Presented by Road Less Traveled Theatre through Oct. 6 in the theater at 639 Main St. Tickets are $17-$35. Call 629-3069 or visit www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org.