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A.R. Gurney: A playwright to call our own

August 6th, 2012 donnahoke

If you know Albert Ramsdell Gurney from his days at the Nichols School in Buffalo, you call him Peter, a name he says his mother “picked out of a hat” because Bert and Al were already taken by his father and an uncle. If you became his friend during or after his time at Williams College or the Yale School of Drama, you know him as Pete. To strangers and theatergoers familiar with such plays as The Cocktail Hour, Sylvia, and Love Letters, he’s A.R., the initials he chose to use professionally out of respect for his father.

 “My father didn’t like to come to New York City to see my plays,” Gurney laughs. “He never thought they were much good. If I said ‘Come see this one; you might like it,’ he said, ‘If it’s any good, it’ll come to Buffalo.”  Fortunately (?) for A.R. Gurney, Sr., there were plenty of opportunities. Teeming with Buffalo temperament if not specific references, many of the prolific playwright’s forty-plus plays have naturally—and frequently—found their way onto his hometown’s stages. This season alone, two theaters chose to showcase his work: the Kavinoky presented Black Tie in February and, this month, Road Less Traveled Productions completes its three-year Gurney retrospective with a production of Ancestral Voices and a celebratory gala welcoming Gurney as guest of honor.

 Ancestral Voices will put audiences in familiar Gurney territory. Like The Dining Room, Black Tie, and countless other Gurney plays, it’s a quasi-fictional family drama, this time about a grandson’s reaction to his grandparents’ separation. But like Screenplay and Love Letters, both presented by RLTP in the past year, Ancestral Voices is presented in staged reading format sans sets.

 “I originally started writing it as a novel, then decided it would work better staged,” says Gurney. “But it required such a large cast and so many different sets that I knew it could never really be done on stage. Today, if you want a play where actors memorize, you have a smaller cast, but if you want something that has a broader sweep, you swing it to the reading form. I started it myself with Love Letters. I originally wrote that as an epistolary novel, sent it to the New Yorker, and they said ‘We don’t publish plays.’ They saw it as a play, so I said ‘Let’s try it as a play.’ “

 Gurney “tried” it at the New York Public Library, where he was scheduled to lecture. Instead, he and actress Holland Taylor read Love Letters, putting an intermission halfway through as if it were a play. “And at intermission, all these women left, and I thought, ‘What have I said?’ Gurney recalls. “But they had all run out to use their cell phones to call their nannies or sitters to say they’d be home a little later. I was extremely surprised.”

 It took a while to catch on, but Love Letters is now Gurney’s most produced play—“if you can call them productions,” he says. It’s been on Broadway, gone on several road tours, been nominated for a Pulitzer, and been read by countless A-list actors from Elizabeth Taylor to Christopher Walken. “It’s done all over the place, in libraries, in churches, all over the world, a lot in France, German, India, China, Korea, and Japan,” Gurney marvels. “The one place it’s never done is England. We opened it there and they slaughtered me, and nobody’s dared touch it since.”

 Though he still gets “it’s not quite right for us” phone calls, the eighty-one-year-old Gurney is proud that his work still survives and resonates. Part of it could be the idea that “the subjects I write about are so generally different from what young people write about that I don’t have much competition.” And another could be the size of his canon, all the more impressive because of his late start. “I spent twenty-five years in the earlier part of my life teaching [at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and because I took it seriously, I didn’t have much time to write,” Gurney says. “So when I finally turned to writing in a more serious way, I just had a lot of plays in me; you could say the dam broke.”

 And how. Though Gurney had had productions of earlier plays, it was the 1981 success of The Dining Room that allowed him to pursue a full-time writing career. He and wife Molly moved their four children from Boston to New York and, since then, he’s written nearly a play a year. “I just became and still am an addict,” he admits. “But I’m very bourgeois; I write Monday through Friday from nine until noon, then I have lunch, and do about an hour and a half after lunch if I’m on a roll. Normally, the stuff I write after lunch I throw away. I’m not happy unless I’m writing something.”

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