America's playwrights past retirement age put the country's younger dramatists to shame, productivity-wise. Horton Foote, 92, will have a new Broadway show this season. No season passes without a new work by 80-year-old Edward Albee. And A.R. Gurney — the spring chicken of the three at 77 — is more prolific still. A typical New York season can include two new Gurney plays, and sometimes three. His latest, Buffalo Gal, begins at Primary Stages on July 22. And the author revealed to Playbill.com that he has a new play almost ready to go for the Flea Theatre, which has been host to a series of political Gurney works (Mrs. Farnsworth, Screenplay) ever since George W. Bush took office. The writer spoke to Playbill.com about why he writes so much and which plays mean the most to him.
Playbill.com: Buffalo Gal has a long history. It was done at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and then in Buffalo at the Studio Arena Theatre in 2002. Now it's finally making its New York debut. What took so long?
A.R. Gurney: There are several reasons. When it went to Buffalo, it was optioned by a New York producer — Julian Schlossberg, actually. I think it did pretty well in Buffalo. At least the local reviews were good. But I learned fairly recently that it got a lousy review in Variety and so the producer backed off. I never knew that, because I don't read all the reviews. I didn't know why it wasn't done at the time. But by then I was very much involved in a series of political plays down at the Flea Theatre, so I didn't think too much about Buffalo Gal. And then a couple years ago I had a play called Indian Blood at Primary Stages, directed by Mark Lamos and we all had such a good time doing it, I thought I'd like to do something else with this theatre and Mark. So I gave him Buffalo Gal and said, "What do you think of this?" He said, "I like it. Let's do it."
Playbill.com: Have there been any changes in the script?
ARG: Oh, yeah. Because the world has changed a lot in six years. Just how the theatre operates. The play is in the backstage tradition. To give you an example, we used to have the stage manager in the play go off and say "I'll make that call. I'll find that out." Now, he has his computer right there and his cell phone. All that off stage business can take place on stage, for better and worse. Some of the details have been brought up to date. Most of all, at the end of the Buffalo run I had the sense that the audience was disappointed in the ending, which was extremely ambiguous. I've been fussing with the ending. Endings are hard. I don't want to make it corny or clichéd. I want to make it right. Also, in Buffalo and Williamstown, there was an intermission. Now, we playwrights all try to write plays without intermissions. Which means a certain amount of reconstruction.
Playbill.com: You mentioned the political plays you've done at the Flea Theatre. Do you consider the plays you do at the Flea, and your other plays set in Buffalo and elsewhere, to be two separate strains of your writing and career?
ARG: A little bit. A little bit. I wish I could bring them together more. Maybe someday I will if I live long enough. At this point, the things I want to say at the Flea — it's a different world down there. The audience in some cases only pays $10. It's a much younger audience, an audience much more interested in current events. The audiences uptown are older and wiser and more immersed in a theatregoing tradition. I find I am talking to different people with each play, and your style changes when you do that.
Playbill.com: Your political plays are usually attacks on Bush and his administration. Bush is almost out of office. Do you have one more political play to be done at the Flea before he leaves?
ARG: (Laughs) How'd you guess? Playbill.com: Just a hunch.
ARG: Yes I do. I haven't quite finished it. And [Flea artistic director] Jim Simpson hasn't seen it yet. I've let him know I've got it and I'm going to send it on to him in the next couple of weeks. Yes, you're right, I want to say one more thing about Bush.
Playbill.com: Does it have a title?
ARG: Not yet. That could be a bad sign. If you don't have a title, there's a problem. But in this particular case, I'm boiling it down to one of two.
Playbill.com: Can you tell me about the plot?
ARG: I better not. It's a very plotty play. It has a certain amount of suspense. And I've written it not to be performed for the actors I write for Uptown, but for the Bats, the younger actors that are apprenticed and intern there. I've written it for them. And there should be in this play, a certain youthful energy and freshness that they bring.
Playbill.com: You're very prolific. What sparks you to write a play? Do the ideas just keep flowing?
ARG: To some degree. I just like doing it and I like working with actors and directors. I like the whole process. It's a very attractive experience to me. I taught for many years at the Humanities Department at MIT, and a full load, so I could only write in the summers. But coming to New York and getting The Dining Room produced (in 1983), it was kind of like opening the floodgates. I discovered how exciting it could be. I am lucky enough to have some kind of idea rolling around in my head that I can pick up on. I'm 77 years old. It's not going to happen too much longer. While I still think I can think and talk and communicate and write, I want to do it.
Playbill.com: This is a question no playwright likes to answer. What plays of yours to you consider your best?
ARG: (Laughs) I couldn't possibly answer that. The cliché answer is to say you plays are like your children. Too many variables to make that kind of decision.
Playbill.com: Well, let me ask another way. Which plays mean the most to you?
ARG: You mean in the sense of personally? (Laughs) That's a good way of asking. I think The Cocktail Hour, Love Letters, The Dining Room and Indian Blood are the ones that are closest to my own bones. Those four.
Playbill.com: I'm guessing that there is never a week in the U.S. when Love Letters is not done somewhere.
ARG: Of course, the playwright, like the husband, is always the last to know. I get these reports every six months from Dramatists Play Service, which handles the play. They're exciting to read. "Oh, it was done here, it was done there." And of course it's an easy play to do in pirated productions. You do it in one night and get out of town before they can close you done. I'm very proud of it. I saw it recently. James Earl Jones and Elizabeth Taylor did it in Hollywood. That was terrific. James Earl Jones has done it many times. He's a first-rate actor and very at home in the part. With her, she was very nervous about it. She couldn't even finish rehearsing the ending, she'd get so nervous and tired and say, "I can't do this." But she came out and did it, and as the play continued, she grew into the part in a most amazing way. At the end the audience rose to its feet, and she, who had been in a wheelchair all evening, got up on her feet and applauded the audience. I've never seen that play work so well therapeutically before.