You're talking to an addict," A.R. Gurney Jr. shrugs helplessly at one of the back tables at New York's Cafe Mozart, right after confessing he's up to 25 plays a career. "People say, 'How do you write so much?' or "Where do you get your ideas?' I tell them it's like asking a drunk, 'Why do you drink so much?' I get the monkey off my back by writing a few words."
Three of these 25 plays are "circling over La Guardia" as we speak, waiting for openings: Far East, a culture-clash play about the occupying American forces in Japan in the 1950s, will be trying out at Williamstown this summer; The Guest Lecture, a more "experimental" piece, is set to lift-off in October at the George Street Theatre; and lastly (firstly, actually) is Labor Day, which came a little early this year -- June 1 to Manhattan Theatre Club -- a semi-autobiographical, rather close-range inspection of The Playwright As Family Man.
Gurney's alter ego, John, already has some play miles on him. We met him in The Cocktail Hour, as Bruce Davison, pondering the play that lurks in his parents. In Labor Day he's Josef Sommer, farther on down the road of life, looking at his kids with a writer's eye.
The Gurney Given: "This character has just been through a major cancer scare and has had certain treatment for it, and his family is particularly eager to be with him when they gather -- as families tend to gather -- on Labor Day to celebrate the end of summer. The playwright, having been through this medical ordeal, wants to write about his children. He wants to write himself back into life. His wife [Joyce Van Patten] and his children [Veanne Cox and James Colby] object strenuously. It's one thing to write about your parents. It's another to write about your children. They're young, and you can wound them in a way that can affect their lives that you can't with your parents whose lives are pretty well set."
Brooks Ashmanskas is the play's fifth wheel, a hot-shot young director who has invaded the family compound to wangle a rewrite session amid all the holiday revelry. "There are, suddenly, major prospects for this play -- if certain changes are made. John has written a good play, but as soon as he starts writing about his children, it becomes soft and sentimental. He can't find the detachment he needs, and that's what this young director comes up to tell him. 'Get those kids out of there, and you can have a good play.'" If there is something life-size about Gurney characters, it is because he draws them from life -- but it's not necessarily something you should try at home. "That can be tricky," he allows. "You can argue the theme of Labor Day is about how life and art don't mix. If you draw too close from life, all you do is harm your work and harm the people involved."
He can even cite a lawsuit to that effect: "It wasn't a play. It was a novel I wrote, and someone recognized herself -- when it wasn't her at all. I didn't have her in mind, but she sued me and thought that I had demeaned her. We ultimately settled, with the understanding that in the paperback edition of this book, I would change the number of children this woman had so she would be less recognizable."
Being truthful and life-size has held Gurney back, limiting his career moves. None of his plays has ever reached the big screen, and only one (The Middle Ages) made it as far as the small screen. Television doesn't have much of a tug for him. "I've tried, but I'm hopeless," he insists. "I don't mean to put TV down - I think some of the writing in TV is very good -- I just can't do it. I seem to be only able to write plays. I've written four novels, but none of them has been particularly successful. The most successful was The Snow Ball, which, I think, really should have been a play -- and, indeed, became one."
We're not talking Broadway either, although theoretically that's his aim every time he takes word processor in hand. "I always hope it'll be a huge success at the Booth Theatre in New York City. That never happens." There is a reason: "As I get older, my instinct is to do things as simply and minimally as I can. That's not the way contemporary theatre is going. It's going for a more opulent staging."
He has had three strikes at Broadway, "all at problematic theatres." His Love Letters, after a long run at the Promenade, shifted operations to the Edison, which no one seemed to be able to find even though it was centrally located inside the Edison Hotel. The Golden Age with Irene Worth, Stockard Channing and Jeff Daniels marked his Broadway debut at the now-extinct Jack Lawrence Theatre.
"It opened the day after David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, and it got killed -- killed. My kind of gentile chatter didn't go. Then Mary [Tyler Moore] and Lynn [Redgrave] opened at the Music Box in Sweet Sue, and there we got thoroughly killed -- I was experimenting with a kind of form -- and the audience wanted to see two stars. They didn't want to worry about Gurney's attempt to play with theatre."
Through a process of elimination, then, Gurney settled into his niche -- Off-Broadway and, laterally, regional theatres throughout the country -- and has become among the most produced playwrights practicing on that narrow strip of theatrical turf. "I do sometimes look at New York as a kind of gantlet I have to run to get out into the hinterlands," he admits. "It's fun when you have a hit in New York -- I haven't had that many, so I love it when I do -- but a play doesn't stop because it doesn't do well here. There is something rewarding about the fact that if a play fails here it can still have a life in many cities outside New York."
Sylvia, The Cocktail Hour, The Dining Room and Love Letters have been his most successful plays "in the provinces" -- the latter two were runners-up for the Pulitzer Prize -- and Another Antigone and What I Did Last Summer have proven to be particularly popular with high schools and colleges, far more than they were in their New York gigs.
All of the above are slices of white-bread American life -- a specialty of Gurney's -- but he finds the labeling rather limiting (nobody, he argues rightly, bothered to tag Neil Simon a chronicler of Jewish life), so he has been known to throw in a Jewish character every once in a while to throw his critics off the scent. "I don't do it consciously," he says. "If it fits the story, fine. I've certainly tried to write for a larger audience [than WASPs]. I think there is some subliminal prejudice against WASPs, and I think that people can't help but see me as a vestigial writer of a vestigial culture -- and they may be right, I dunno. It's who I am and what I do. Some people say I'm writing for a group that no longer exists. Remak Ramsay, the actor, says WASPs are going to be the untouchables of the twenty-first century."
And if that should come to pass, where would that leave him? He pauses to think, then his face brightens with a thought: "Probably washing myself frantically in the Ganges River."
-- By Harry Haun