Disclaimer – despite what this may look like from the first paragraph, this is a review for Tongue In Cheek’s production of their original play, Buffalo Heights, and, spoiler alert — I totally loved it…
After/Since Within Arm’s Reach ended, I’ve been thinking a lot — and I mean A LOT — about what we, as GTTP, do and where we fit in the off-off-Broadway landscape. I believe I have mentioned here before that it’s always tricky to get an audience, to get butts in the seats — not just because we’re a small company who can’t afford to hire a big PR firm to get the buzz going but also because we focus on original work. And though we do great stuff, it’s unknown stuff so we don’t have the built in audience of a production of Guys and Dolls, or West Side Story…or, if we’re talking plays, The Glass Menagerie or Our Town. You see, I didn’t start GTTP just for the fun of it, and Molly (now that there’s a Molly) and I aren’t doing it just for the heck of it. Partially we’re doing it because we have no choice — we’re directors. And if we don’t have a project we have trouble functioning in the world but also, we do this because we want this little theater thing we do to become, if not a profitable enterprise, at least a break even enterprise. And, as Annie Savoy says in the film Bull Durham, “baseball may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth, and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time, but it’s also a job.” And I feel that way about theater and GTTP — theater may be a passion, a necessity, a religion to us practitioners, but it’s also a job. We want it to pay our bills not just our souls. So, when I think about all of this and I think about the complexities of finding an audience and reaching out to the universe (especially the NYC theater-going universe) I inevitably think about competition. I think about other theater companies that are like us, who do similar things to what we do and it’s very easy to tip into jealousy and envy and it can sometimes be hard to enjoy watching what others do (even when it impresses me) if I see them as competition. Then again, as self-centered as it sounds, I always know how impressed I am with a production if my appreciation busts through that mask of jealousy and envy and I walk away from it just loving what I’ve seen…
Which brings me to Tongue In Cheek. As I have mentioned before, Tongue In Cheek Productions is a theater company that I love. In the past few years I’ve seen 3 shows from TIC – Our Town, The Mistakes Madeleine Made, and How I Learned to Drive, and I’ve been impressed by all of them. In many ways, I think of TIC as a sister company to GTTP. TIC is a small company that’s been around for more than a couple years but fewer than ten. TIC was created by and is run by a woman, Jake Lipman. They use a core ensemble of players but also uses outside actors on a by production basis, they also won a Puffin Grant, and, a lot of their set pieces are from Ikea. I also think of Jake as a friend. I love her directing and her acting and I’m always excited to see what she does. However, with all those similarities and more, up until recently the company differed from GTTP in one key way — TIC focused on revivals. That changed with their most recent production, the original piece, commissioned and developed by Tongue in Cheek Theater Productions, Buffalo Heights.
Buffalo Heights is a new comedy which follows new teacher, Fran, on her first semester teaching French at Buffalo Heights High. When controversy erupts at the school, Fran (Jake Lipman) encounters unexpected adversaries and allies.
To be honest, although I always enjoy TIC’s work, I was wary about seeing Buffalo Heights for a couple of reasons — #1) You know, this isn’t what TIC normally does, what if it wasn’t any good and I had to find something to tell Jake after the show — “uh, that was interesting” — without saying, “yeah, stick to what you know.” or more likely #2) What if it’s amazing and it’s better than what GTTP does and it’s incredible and brilliant, and now TIC decides to abandon revivals all together and only do original works and become direct competition for GTTP and what if they do it better than us and what if nobody wants to see GTTP anymore because TIC is doing the same thing but they’re doing it better and what if my jealousy ruins my friendship with Jake and I, and they, and we, and, and, and, after all this is our little pond, what if there isn’t room enough for both of us and, and, and… (as you can see, I can spiral out of control pretty easily).
BUT guess what happened? I saw the show and it was awesome. It was witty and fun and thought provoking and surprising. First off, the show was wonderfully performed (as I’ve come to expect from TIC shows). Jake (as Fran), was terrific as the outsider character entering an unjust community and finding herself in the middle of a fight she hadn’t expected. Shelley Little was hilarious balancing the officiousness of an ambitious school principal with a desire to still be a friend to Fran. Joe Mullen, as the hapless security guard, effortlessly crossed the line between sweet and innocent and totally skeevy (I mean that in the best possible way), and then back again. Nina Leese was fun as the local congresswoman so focused on the politics of her career that she is blind to the behavior of her own daughter. Allison Lemel found a perfect level of obnoxious, self centered teenager when portraying the “running for Class President” Piper. And Matthew Whitfield was fantastic, rebellious and lovable, as the reformed stoner student who dares to enter into competition with Piper. But, of course none of this is a surprise. You see Jake is one of those directors who knows the best way to make her job easier is to cast well — and she always delivers.
And then there was the play itself — devised by the TIC Ensemble cast with playwright Adam Harrell, Buffalo Heights is really funny. Again, as expected from a TIC show, I found myself laughing out loud throughout the show. But, more importantly, as a person who has seen A LOT of theater and film and television, and so is not often surprised by where a plot goes, what I really enjoyed about Buffalo Heights was the fact that during the show there were several moments where I thought to myself, “oh, this is that plot line” or “oh, so if we’re coming from here, we’re going to end up there” and? I was wrong every time — which was awesome, surprising, and downright fun.
So, here’s what it boils down to: #1) Go see Buffalo Heights. #2) Much to my surprise (yes, I’ll admit to my petty jealousies), I hope this is only the first of many original productions from TIC, because seriously, they know what they’re doing! (Again, this is not acutally a surprise, it’s just, wow! Good stuff all around! I love their revivals but it turns out I love their original work too. And, most importantly, #3) It looks like seeing Buffalo Heights set off a little paradigm shift in my mind when it comes to comparing myself and GTTP to other companies of our ilk, to seeing ourselves in competition with them and others, and here it is — you ready? So, not to get all hippy dippy or anything, but… THERE IS NO COMPETITION! I don’t mean that in the sense that one of us is so much better than the other that it blows the other one out of the water but I mean this as an actual, literal — there. Is. No. Competition! It’s so easy in this business to see everything as a competition — “but that’s our money”, “that’s our audience,” “you can’t be good too because then those same people will go see your shows and not mine”. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The sandbox is big enough for us all to play in — especially, when it’s Tongue In Cheek that we’re talking about — and, when it comes to TIC, I’ll even share my shovel and pail…look, Ma. I’m growing.