We are told that a double-bill of dark comedies, Darlene and the Guest Lecturer, that recently had their world premiere at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse, represented a daring departure for playwright A.R. Gurney.
But daring moves generated to turn the suburban experience on its head are not uncommon for this American master of contemporary domestic drama. The proverbial can of worms was officially opened back with Gurney's second professionally-produced work. It was a full-length, revue-styled play, the Drama Desk award-winning Scenes From American Life. The show opened in 1971 at Lincoln Center's small Forum Theater stage.
Life 's Orwell/Huxley theme, in which a time machine travels from the Depression years through our present, was especially notable for comedy scenes that focused on the life of the rich. "Pete" Gurney, as he is commonly known to his friends, undoubtedly had to answer to his christened name, Albert Ramsdell, when his father, a prominent and successful Buffalo businessman, took umbrage at Scenes From American Life, which he considered a betrayal of his family's lifestyle. Gurney Sr. was so angered by his son's play, he didn't speak to Pete for almost a year.
Although Gurney says his parents were never terribly interested in his career as a playwright, his father felt he should not write about the private situations in which he grew up. "He felt I was a smart ass," says Gurney. It seems that Scenes... was the first play in which Gurney attempted to dramatize his hypothesis that WASPs are not as boring as they appear.
The "smart ass" would get even smarter at St. Paul's, Williams College, a stint in the U.S. Navy, and the Yale School of Drama, where he graduated in 1958. Gurney says "I've been writing a long, long time," as he recalls his first published play, only four pages long, that appeared in the "Best Short Plays of 1955." A decade followed during which time Gurney was acknowledged as "the spokesman for the WASP," a label he once deplored but now says no longer bothers him. It was in 1981 that a Gurney play, The Dining Room would create a stir in New York when it opened to enthusiastic notices Off-Broadway. The time was right for critics and audiences to take to heart his comically anthropological investigation of upper-class, genteel, Northeastern WASPs. When The Dining Room was produced at NJ's McCarter Theater in 1984, critic for the NY Times Alvin Klein said of the play, "[it] is as edifying a study in sociology as it is a winning evening of theatrical ingenuity."
I asked Gurney if his oft-recurring theme -- the mix of sociology and theatre -- always fascinated him? "No, no, no," Gurney responds with laugh. "It only seems like sociology because that world hadn't been written about for a while." He noted that that world was covered well in the '30s and '40s by such playwrights as S.N. Berman, Philip Barry, and Robert E. Sherwood. Certainly novelists like Cheever, Updike and Marquand and even Salinger kept the middle class alive in their best sellers.
Two decades would pass before Gurney would pick up the mantle as champion of middle-class lives on stage. Some of those plays -- The Middle Ages, The Perfect Party, Children, and Love Letters are gracefully achieving classic status.
"When I started writing, it must have looked like a sociological study...like a tribe from New Guinea that had just been discovered," said Gurney. Has exposing the upper crust run its course? "Yes and no. It's a world I grew up in, and a way of life that has pretty much disappeared. I do spend a lot of time thinking about that, especially as I get older. So I'm not going to say I've finished talking or writing about it. I hope I can always go on looking at it in a slightly different way." Gurney is quick to point out that whereas Barry wrote about the very rich with a certain kind of adulation, he (Gurney) does not.
Gurney laughs again when I suggest that he is famous for writing about attractive people saying attractive dialogue. "I didn't know that," he says, admitting, however, that he is a comedy writer. "The world strikes me as a funny place. Every time I try to get darker and more serious, everyone starts telling me how the play has a lot of laughs in it. Some of my darker themes are often perceived as being light and attractive," he observes.
Despite Gurney's many Off-Broadway successes, his Broadway ventures -- Sweet Sue starring Mary Tyler Moore and Lynn Redgrave, and The Golden Age starring Irene Worth, Stockard Channing and Jeff Daniels, were poorly received. Gurney feels his plays work best and "belong in a smaller frame."
While Gurney, more than any other playwright, has chronicled the gradual disintegration of a particular breed of American aristocracy, it appears he is carefully and courageously moving into more unknown territory. Quoting Tennessee Williams, "You always write the same play," brings Gurney to consider his attempt to stretch in another direction. He did this, especially, with Sylvia, a whimsical piece about a stray dog, a role written to be played by a charming, attractive actress.
A George Street Playhouse production of Sylvia followed soon after the conclusion of its New York run at the Manhattan Theater Club. Although Gurney did not see Sylvia at George Street, he would eventually be there rehearsing the world premiere of Darlene and the Guest Lecturer. Ironically, Gurney says he had originally intended Darlene as a companion piece to Sylvia. Gurney freely admits people seemed to be "offended" by The Guest Lecturer when it was given a first-reading at Lincoln Center. However, both David Saint, the newly-appointed artistic director of George Street Playhouse, and director John Rando (Mere Mortals and Others ) expressed interest.
While Gurney's first response to David's inquiry was "David, you don't want to read that," Gurney and Rando proceeded with another more successful reading at Primary Stages. Gurney then sent the script to Saint who said he liked it. "Okay," says Gurney, "if you have the guts and get the same kick out of the play as I do, let's do it."
The core play, The Guest Lecturer, is the one Gurney sent Saint. With Lecturer, Gurney says he has tried to delve into the roots of classic, ancient, pre-Hellenic comedy prior to Aristophanes. He does say, "I tried to write a play that moved us back in a comic way." The Guest Lecturer is only an hour long, so Saint asked Gurney to write a companion piece. Out of the trunk Gurney dug up a rejected script he had actually written years before for a TV show Saint was directing. Knowing that both plays were written about the same time and had a similar texture, Gurney suggested to Saint there might be a way for him to integrate the two plays into one evening.
This production serves as a reunion of sorts for Saint and Gurney. Saint directed Gurney's play, The Fourth Wall, which toured with George Segal and Betty Buckley but never came into New York. Like The Fourth Wall, The Guest Lecturer has an absurdist element...making the audience an integral part. "The play cannot take place without an audience," says Gurney.
Both plays star Nancy Opel, who introduces us to a duo of amazing women, each contemplating a new path in an all-too-familiar life. There is Angela, whose discovery of a mysteriously-addressed note to "Darlene" creates strain in her marriage, and Mona, the head of a regional theatre company, who takes a diabolical step to save it. Also in the cast are Robert Stanton, Rex Robbins and M. Ehlinger.
Saddened by the critical reception to his last play, Labor Day, a play he remarks he is especially fond of, Gurney is currently represented at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theatre this season with another new play, Far East..
As of 1996, Gurney officially retired as a tenured professor of American literature and the humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As Gurney, the husband of one, father of four and grandfather of six (as a program bio states), spends more and more time in his home in Roxbury (though he also maintains an Upper West Side NYC apartment), he will undoubtedly keep coming up with new ways to turn the suburban experience on its head.
-- By Simon Saltzman
Special to PBOL, by permission of the author and This Month ON STAGE magazine