Wednesday, August 24, 2005

An Afternoon Chat (with A.R. Gurney)

Express Staff Writer

A. R. Gurney. Photo by Barbi Reed

Third in a series of interviews with authors participating in the Sun Valley Writers' Conference

Recently in town for the Sun Valley Writer's Conference, Buffalo, N.Y.-bred A.R. "Pete" Gurney is a playwright. He's very particular about this.

"I feel very honored to be at a writers' conference. Playwright is spelled w-r-i-g-h-t. We don't consider ourselves technically (as) writers, when we're writing plays, as much as craftsmen. And there's so much engineering that goes on in writing a play, so many things you have to consider, " he said. "So many other people that are with you in the process; whether in your head as you're writing it or when you actually get to the production stage. I'm always a little embarrassed. I don't mind being called a playwright as long as they spell it right."

Gurney laughed. He's courteous and chatty, rather like a favorite uncle.

Best known for crafting observant satirical plays, he writes about the world of New England and New York white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, a.k.a. "wasps." His drawing room comedies can lull the audience into a comfortable "been there, done that" sensation until wry witticisms fly and quirky characters enter.

"People hadn't written about that world in about 20 years. I was lifting the curtain on a group of people who'd been castigated during the Vietnam War, the power elite or whatever you want to call it. I've tried to write about that world a bit.

"Their tribal customs are very funny but I hope there's some kind of affection for those people, not just bitter satire. I'm not so interested in that as I am interested in a world where people are trying to accommodate themselves to change. It's sometimes funny, sometimes sad. I think it's hard to write about people if you don't like them."

In 1958, Gurney began his playwriting career in earnest. He'd always wanted to be a playwright, and spent many years as a teacher. A graduate of Williams College in Massachusetts, he was two classes behind the composer Stephen Sondheim, who was already writing and directing musical comedies. Gurney admits he wasn't up to filling those shoes when Sondheim graduated but managed to mount musical revues.

His first play, "The David Show," was produced in New York in 1968. In 1970, "Scenes from an American Life" received its world premiere at the Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo. During the 1970s, he wrote two novels "The Gospel According to Joe" and "Entertaining Strangers" and several plays, including "Children," which premiered in London in 1974.

"The Dining Room," opened in New York in 1982, and was highly successful both critically and commercially. He followed this up with several off-Broadway presentations, including "Another Anitgone" in 1988, and both "The Cocktail Hour" and "Love Letters" in 1989. In 1991 he adapted to the stage his novel "The Snow Ball".

Other theatrical works include "Richard Cory," "The Middle Ages," "Show Me the Way to Go Home," "Sylvia," "The Fourth Wall" and the Broadway production of "Sweet Sue," with Mary Tyler Moore and Lynn Redgrave.

"Let's Do It," a musical based on Cole Porter's music, played briefly at The Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven but ran into the sharp pens of critics.

Gurney, a most politic man, shrugs this off. "I've had plays that were in terrible trouble in rehearsal but through working with actors and directors have managed to slap them into shape. Some I've loved and they get creamed by the critics. The ones with checkered careers—I keep an eye on them like any parent.

"It's a scary, tricky business. Most of my plays are mounted at not-for-profit theatres, like Williamstown, several at Lincoln Center, Playwrights Horizons, four or five at Manhattan Theatre Club. I tend to work with the same directors, and sometimes actors."

Currently, Gurney is associated with an off-Broadway, The Flea Theatre in New York, where "Screen Play" opened last spring and will be remounted this fall, directed by Flea's artistic head, Jim Simpson.

"It's a funny play, nice reviews," Gurney said. "It takes place 10 years from now," in a United States still reeling from the current (Bush) administration's foreign policies.

He also wrote especially for The Flea "O Jerusalem" and "Mrs. Farnsworth." The latter starred Sigourney Weaver and John Lithgow, and was a New York Times 10 Best Plays of 2004 pick.

"They all surprise me," he said. The real surprise is that two of his best-known plays, "Sylvia" in 1995 and "Love Letters," were among the plays that began shakily.

Did he ever expect "Love Letters" to be produced so often and with so many disparate casts?

"Never! Like 'Sylvia,' I sent it around. With 'Sylvia' people said, 'We can't ask a woman to play a dog.' Finally after about a year, I gave it to Lynne Meadow (artistic director of Manhattan Theatre Club). She said, 'No problem, I think I know just who should play it. Sarah Jessica (Parker) did a reading." And then she starred in the play at MTC to great acclaim.

"With "Love Letters," I wrote it as an epistolary piece and sent it to The New Yorker. They said, 'We don't do plays.' I couldn't get arrested with that play.

"So I decided to do it myself. I sent it to the actress Holland Taylor; We did it at the New York Public Library," he said, and then added with typical humility. "It went over well and others decided to do it too. Older people, younger people. It seems to work."

Gurney won the Drama Desk Award, a Rockefeller Award and two Lucille Lortel Awards. He holds honorary degrees from Williams College and Buffalo State University, and, surprisingly, was on the faculty of Massachusetts Institute of Technology until 1996.

Gurney laughed, relaying that while MIT kept him on the faculty, and even listed his courses in catalogs; across them it was noted, "Not to be offered," year after year. While an imaginary presence at MIT, he was and is a reality in the theater community at large. Year after year, he offers up his tidy, witty and surprising plays.

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