St. John Hankin (1869–1909), who drowned himself in a Welsh river 98 years ago (the family had a history of suicidal depression), occupied a place in the theater of Edwardian London surprisingly analogous to that occupied in New York theater today by the prolific A.R. Gurney (b. 1930), who has dealt openly, in play form, with the suicides in his own family history, and may be said to have survived by the wiser tactic of drowning himself in his work: Every season brings a new Gurney play or two. The material is familiar and the author’s stance toward it largely consistent, but Gurney’s formal imagination, his ability to structure his customary substance into new and unexpected shapes, seems inexhaustible. He has been a playwright in the sense in which men used to be shipwrights or wheelwrights, crafting within customary patterns but crafting each new piece freshly, so that no two are exactly alike. He tailors them to changes in the market the way craftsmen in every trade tailor their handmade goods to the customer’s specifications.
But through it all, Gurney has been, like Hankin before him, a chronic doubter of the tradition he was bred to carry on. Hankin, writing when English mercantile respectability was at its peak, worked by subversion, smuggling into the era’s favorite bourgeois theatrical form, social comedy, a satiric streak dark enough to be genuinely shocking even now. In his outrageous masterpiece, the 1905 comedy The Return of the Prodigal, currently getting its New York premiere at the Mint Theatre, the hero has a climactic speech, questioning society’s obligation to care for the incurably ill and the insane, during which you can practically hear the clonk of audience jaws dropping. Hankin remains inside the well-made comedy’s tidy form, setting a problem and providing a snidely satisfactory resolution, but in the interim between start and finish he plants enough dynamite to explode most of the assumptions that keep the society he depicts functioning. When his scenes resonate emotionally, like those between the hero of The Return and his siblings, the effect is something like Chekhov with epigrams—except that the epigrams come wrapped in barbed wire.
Writing in the American equivalent of the same tradition, with the idea of a respectable mercantile gentry always uppermost in his mind, Gurney necessarily has to employ different tactics, for the reality behind that idea has long since disappeared, subsumed in the generalized parvenu greed of global capitalism. Nobody has any class any more; social comedy is now a chaos. Gurney solves this problem by writing in full awareness that his chosen form and the assumptions behind it are dead; his plays are all extended comic autopsies, of both upper-bourgeois respectability and the whole notion of writing plays about it. Rather than subvert his onstage world, he dismantles it. In his latest play, Crazy Mary, the notion of a lady receiving a gentleman caller is depicted as literally insane: The heroine (Kristine Nielsen), the illegitimate offspring of an elite family that has largely died out, has been stuck away in a mental institution and forgotten—until a distant cousin (Sigourney Weaver), her eyes fixed on the batty one’s enormous trust fund, succeeds to the guardianship. Since said cousin has her own affinity for the old vanished ways—a realtor, she uses words like “wainscoting”—and since she has a rebellious son (Michael Esper) all too ready to use his loony relative’s therapeutic needs as an escape from his preplanned life, the play becomes a post-Pirandellian pop quiz on whose notion of reality is crazier, not excluding those of the shrink (Mitchell Greenberg) who sees a best seller in the case and the African-American nurse (Myra Lucretia Taylor) happy to become an Irish-accented maid at her favorite patient’s behest. And, of course, not omitting ours.
Gurney weaves his doubting-reality game so elegantly that your own doubts may take a while to surface. His present-day events would make more sense set in the 1960s, while the backstory they encase suggests an odd crossing of The Go-Between with a Victorian orphan melodrama, hard to credit in the era of cell phones and book deals. Jim Simpson’s excellent cast, particularly Esper, Nielsen, and Weaver, make this gently sardonic exercise in comparative mores agreeably easy to take. Weirdly, it’s Hankin’s simpler and more straightforward work that seems the less antique of the two, though Jonathan Bank’s quiet, almost monochrome production is hit-or-miss in its casting. Roderick Hill and Bradford Cover, as the titular wastrel and his stuffy but hardheaded brother, keep the sibling-rivalry tensions convincingly high, while Tandy Cronyn dithers touchingly as their mother.