Theater

Master of Invention: At 85, A.R. Gurney Is Still Pushing the Limits of His Craft

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Thanks to the enduring popularity of plays such as Love Letters and The Dining Room, which study the fading fortunes of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant society of the past century, A.R. Gurney sometimes is mislabeled as a dramatist who genteelly writes in the old-school tradition of French doors, silver tea services, and “Tennis, anyone?”

Yet the professionals who work with Albert Ramsdell Gurney Jr. — friends and associates call him Pete — know better than to consign this author of more than fifty plays to the shelf of obsolescent playwrights. Gurney’s sly humor and unorthodox styles of composition liberate his often buttoned-down characters. His stories and themes fly beyond WASPs. And, as industrious as ever at 85, Gurney has a couple of fresh works bubbling on the fire even now.

The playwright’s latest, Love & Money, bowed at Signature Theatre last fall even as Sylvia, a quirky 1995 comedy about a city-dweller’s infatuation with a dog, popped up as a Broadway revival. A national tour of Love Letters, an epistolary romance that has employed a veritable who’s-who of showbiz since 1988, just wrapped a visit to Gurney’s hometown of Buffalo; Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw — appropriately enough — reteamed to perform the bittersweet love story.

Andre Bishop, who presented four new Gurney works at Playwrights Horizons and, later, four more Gurney premieres at Lincoln Center Theater (where he is currently the producing artistic director), explains the “expected and unexpected” sides of the writer’s profile: “He is known as a graceful and eloquent and elegant chronicler of old-fashioned WASP dynamics,” Bishop says. “But within those works, Pete proves to be an amazing experimentalist and innovator. He is always playing around with the dramatic form.”

Bishop recalls the time in 1982 when he and Gurney discussed the original production of The Dining Room, a play that fluently observes several generations of a WASP family during fifty years of mealtimes. Gurney suggested that the set designer might hang a velvet rope across the front of the stage to indicate to viewers that the setting, and the upper-middle-class figures occupying it, were a museum exhibit.

“Pete often has several deep and different games going on within his plays,” observes Jim Simpson, the founder and former artistic director of the Flea Theater, who has staged a dozen of Gurney’s works. Sometimes the playwright reaches beyond the proscenium’s fourth wall: Latecomers to O Jerusalem find themselves shaking hands with the characters. In Another Antigone and Mrs. Farnsworth, viewers are addressed as students in a classroom. Sometimes his plots overlap: Five different stories unfold simultaneously within one motel room in The Wayside Motor Inn.

Holland Taylor, an incisive actor who has been chummy with Gurney since the late 1960s, laughs when she talks about a character she originated in his quasi-autobiographical The Cocktail Hour, a comedy about an author who gingerly describes to his patrician family a quasi-autobiographical play he has written. “It was his sister,” Taylor says of her character. “In the story, she becomes resentful when she learns that her part is small. And in the actual play we are watching, she is a resentful woman and her part is small. It’s a prime example of the subtle worlds-within-worlds that Pete creates.”

Among his colleagues in the theater, Gurney is regarded as a gentlemanly presence — “His face is always gently wreathed in smiles,” Taylor says fondly — and revered as an astute craftsman. “Pete is a real sophisticated nuts-and-bolts playwright,” declares Simpson. “You don’t get a lot of rewrites. Instead he is masterful at editing down his scripts as rehearsals go along.”

Having dreamed up plays as a schoolboy, Gurney pursued playwriting even as he taught the classics and literature at M.I.T. His earliest works, such as The Golden Fleece in 1967 — and certain others produced later — construed classical myths within modern and suburban circumstances. By the early 1980s, Gurney had become sufficiently successful as a writer to move his wife and four children to New York City. Over the years, his plays have been mounted by many of Off-Broadway’s leading companies, including Manhattan Theatre Club, Circle Repertory, and Primary Stages.

“I still feel a kind of elation whenever I finish writing a play,” Gurney tells the Voice from his country home in Roxbury, Connecticut, during a brief phone chat. Maintaining a routine he has observed for decades, he begins writing at around eight in the morning and continues until lunchtime, after which he revises that day’s output. “The computer is there and it’s turned on, so I figure that I’ve got to do something,” says Gurney, who usually works out his rough drafts in pen before going to the keyboard. (“Pete’s work ethic is astonishing,” remarks Taylor.)

Stories by Henry James and John Cheever, as well as the classics and current affairs, have inspired his plays; the advent of George W. Bush sparked a series of political satires. Recently Gurney has been heard to declare his latest works as swan songs, but many of those around him say they’ll believe it when they see it. “Pete’s always got one or two plays in different stages of writing stashed somewhere in his desk,” says Simpson.

Later this year, Gurney looks forward to a developmental reading of The Birthday Boy, a piece regarding Barack Obama, whom he admiringly refers to as a “black WASP.” In the fall, Gurney expects that the Flea will premiere his Two Class Acts, in which the audience moves from one performance space to another to see both parts of the play.

For all that, and even as Gurney was awarded an Obie for lifetime achievement as a prolific master playwright, his unassuming manner continues to disarm. “Every so often,” he says, “when I am watching one of my plays, there will come a moment when I think, ‘That’s not so bad.’ ” We couldn’t agree more.

[This is part of the Voice‘s 2016 Obie Awards coverage. Check out the rest of our Obies features here.]

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