Playwright A.R. Gurney, Poet of a Vanishing America, Dead at 86

Obituaries   Playwright A.R. Gurney, Poet of a Vanishing America, Dead at 86 The prolific author gave audiences Love Letters, Sylvia, and The Dining Room.
A.R. Gurney
A.R. Gurney Joseph Marzullo/WENN

A.R. Gurney, whose plays Scenes From American Life, Love Letters, The Middle Ages, and The Dining Room chronicled a middle-class America that is slowly vanishing, has died at age 86.

The remarkably prolific author (also sometimes credited as A.R. Gurney Jr.) wrote nearly 50 full-length plays, but only four were produced on Broadway, including Sylvia, starring Annaleigh Ashford in a 2015 revival.

Born Albert Ramsdell Gurney on November 1, 1930, and called “Pete” by his friends inside and outside the theatre, he grew up in Buffalo, New York, at a time when it was one of the leading industrial cities in America. As he grew to adulthood, he had a front-row seat to its gradual decline, and the bewilderment of its residents as the world changed around them. That experience was reflected in plays like The Snow Ball, The Old Boy, Labor Day, The Golden Age, The Cocktail Hour, and especially The Dining Room, which dramatizes several generations of a family as they arrive as children, grow up, have children of their own, grow old, and make their exit, all around an heirloom dining table that serves as the play’s centerpiece. The Dining Room was cited as a finalist for the 1984 Pulitzer Prize in Drama.

“Most of my plays are very close to home,” he told Playbill in 2010. “That was very much my family on stage.”

Gurney was a late bloomer as a playwright. Educated at Williams College, he serverd a stint in the Navy, and subsequently studied playwriting at the Yale School of Drama. He began writing plays in the late 1960s, but seemed destined for a mainly academic career, teaching literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology until his 50s. Only then did he move to New York and start turning out plays at a remarkable rate, mostly for Off-Broadway and regional venues. Frequently visiting his family in upstate New York, he drew on them and their sense of being lost in a changing America as source material. As if to make up for lost time, he turned out more than a play a year for the next 25 years, plus three novels. He made his Broadway debut in 1987 with Sweet Sue, starring Mary Tyler Moore.

Gurney was again named a Pulitzer finalist in 1990, for his play Love Letters, a two-hander drama that traces the epistolary romance between a straight-arrow man who becomes a U.S. Senator, and a free-spirited woman who follows an uneven road in life. The play was performed by two actors sitting at a table and reading the letters to one another over the decades. The 1989 Broadway production directed by John Tillinger originated at Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut, and starred Jason Robards and Colleeen Dewhurst.

Read: Playbill’s BRIEF ENCOUNTER with A.R. Gurney

Not all Gurney’s plays were serious. One of his best-known was Sylvia (1995), about a man in an unsteady marriage who becomes overly devoted to his adopted puppy, played in its long-running original Off-Broadway production by Sarah Jessica Parker. The play had been turned down by numerous theatres who were uneasy with seeing a dog played by a woman, but it was finally given a chance by Manhattan Theatre Club. The 2015 Broadway revival co-starred Parker’s husband, Matthew Broderick.

None of Gurney’s plays were filmed, though several were adapted as TV movies, including Far East, The Dining Room, My Brother’s Wife (based on The Middle Ages), and Love Letters (three times: with Laura Linney and Steven Webber in 1999, with Anouk Aimée and Alain Delon in a 2008 French production, and with Sheila McCarthy and Peter Donaldson in 2010).

Gurney died at his home in New York City.