Published in the Globe Magazine
Albert Ramsdell Gurney, Jr. (“Pete” to his friends) was born in 1930 and raised in Buffalo, New York. He’s been dubbed the American Theatre’s John Cheever, or the WASP Neil Simon. But whatever he’s called, he’s clearly the keeper of the flame for the dying breed of well-to-do (or at least well-bred), tight-lipped, white-gloved, Puritanical, Anglo Saxon Protestants — economically privileged but emotionally disadvantaged and unwilling or unable to change and move on. His comedies are often wry and poignant, but always well-mannered and gentle, like the man himself. This is his tenth play produced at the Old Globe: “The Cocktail Hour” (1988), “The Dining Room” (19xx), “The Snow Ball” (19xx), “The Old Boy” (19XX), “Another Antigone” (19xx), “Love Letters” (19xx), “Overtime” (19xx), “Later Life” (19xx), “Sylvia” and now “Labor Day,” his 23rd full-length play, which is kind of a chaser to “The Cocktail Hour,” and features the same semi-autobiographical central character, a playwright.
PBL: What prompted you to revisit John and his family (from “The Cocktail Hour”) nine years later?
ARG: “The Cocktail Hour” was set in the early ’70s. The issue is a man trying to write a play about his parents and his parents’ objections to that. I pick up the thread, but it goes in a different direction. John is now in his mid-sixties, at the end of his career. He’s summing up. It’s Labor Day, the end of summer, before winter. The theme is, much as we love our children, our inability to really know them constantly surprises us. It’s one thing to try to pin down or harness the older generation. With the younger generation, it’s more difficult. The language is different, the whole culture has changed. John discovers two things: 1. How little he knows about his children. And 2. His children are acting out his secret fantasies. It’s very hard for a writer to tell his own plot; and I don’t want to give anything away.
PBL: But would you consider the piece to be autobiographical?
ARG: Well, I don’t call him Pete…. But I have been thinking about my children recently. I think we all write — or should write — from our own bones. The hero here has a wife and four kids — though they’re not all onstage. And the story does parallel mine. I never wrote the ultimate play that caused all this attention. I’ve been very lucky in my career; I’ve been produced in a lot of regional theaters. But I haven’t had much luck on Broadway. Or Hollywood. I sold scripts but they were never done. So I’ve pretty much given up on that. Part of me would love to have that Broadway hit. But part of it is the whole issue of this play: What do you gain and what do you lose?
PBL: And what do your four children (ages 35-39) think about the play?
ARG: I didn’t even tell them I was doing this. But I didn’t tell my parents about “The Cocktail Hour” either! I never could’ve written that if my father were alive; he would’ve killed me! My mother is still alive; she’ll be 90 in January. I told her I’d written a sort of a sequel to “The Cocktail Hour.” And she said, “Oh no, please!” I said, “You’re not in it.” And she said, “Well, that’s ONE good thing!”
Last June the kids gave my wife and me a fortieth anniversary party. I thought it would be a good time to tell them about “Labor Day.” They were more interested in how the Red Sox were doing… They’ve asked me about it, but they haven’t asked to read it; they know I wouldn’t let them. It’s so different after rehearsal, particularly when you’re working with Jack [O’Brien]. It’s like someone looking over your shoulder when you’re still sketching the lines in. But anyway, this isn’t exactly my children up there. It’s exaggeration. But it isn’t corny or sentimental. And it’s much tougher on me.
????PBL: What does this play say about playwriting?
ARG: The play is not all about playwriting techniques or choices, but it does have a lot to say about that. The writer has a choice here. There’s a strong commercial interest in his play. It’s the first time in his life that he has a chance for a major commercial success. But there’s a conflict between him and the young director who wants to take the piece in a much more commercial direction. During the course of the play, he decides that he wants to write about his children. The director wants him to cut out the children and family and move in a different direction. That’s very hard for the writer. How the play-within-a-play ends is a major issue.
PBL: Many of your plays have political undertones. There’s always something in them about the state of America.
ARG: I hope that’s true. This play does say a lot about American culture, about the nature of the American family in the late 1990s. About the role of parents, the nature of theater and commercial interests and how hard it is to maintain a simple, unique personal voice in a culture that seems so… generalized. I hope that’s what I’m writing about.
PBL: Is it despairing, as we reach the millennium, or is it hopeful?
ARG: I think it’s qualified, but somewhat hopeful. It’s certainly not sentimental and idealized.
PBL: There was some talk early on that everyone who read the play didn’t like the ending. Is that a kind of self-parody, in terms of your own difficulty writing endings?
ARG: Any contemporary writer will tell you endings are hard. You grapple with it when writing, when you’re in rehearsal and when you’ve gotten it in front of an audience. There’s a lot of discovery in writing, whether it’s a play or movie or for TV. You constantly hear the word ‘closure.’ It’s a cliché now. How to give the audience a sense of ending without tying all the knots. We don’t believe in that kiss at sunset any more. That’s the issue in “Labor Day.” His ending is not commercial; people feel it’s not a valid or true ending. What they propose he doesn’t think is true. That’s a basic issue in the play.
PBL: what is the significance of the title? Is Labor Day another one of those seminal transition times you so often write about, the end of summer, with winter looming?
ARG: Labor Day has lots of meanings. It’s about work, the working man. One of the victors is a blue collar guy who affects the action. It’s about the end of summer — personally for the playwright and for America. The end of an idyllic, warm season. An awareness that we’re all getting older. It’s looking back on a pleasant summer, putting away the porch furniture, with work and school coming up. It’s also about being born. The birth of a play. The struggles and travails of the birth process of a new play. That’s Labor Day, too.
PBL: You’ve often written about men in later life, unable to move away from the past, embrace change, or seize life and live it. Frank Rich of the New York Times once said your men “never grow up and never have to.” Is that true? And is it also true of you?
ARG: In some ways, I think that is true. I hope the protagonist of this play grows up. He’s in his mid-sixties. I hope he grows up, but there is the sense of the boy/man, a boyish innocence he passes onto his kids.
I myself am on both sides of the fence. I do feel I’ve grown up. I’m not fully mature, but I’m getting there.
PBL: do you think your writing has matured?
ARG: Yes. I’ve tried to create a canvas of a world, the world I grew up in, lived in, am still living in. It’s kind of a mosaic of a way of life that interests me. I hope I’m not always nostalgic. My later works don’t have the anger or satirical quality of the earlier plays. I do hope there’s kind of a wisdom there that wasn’t there earlier.
PBL: How do you feel about being classified or criticized for being the chronicler of the WASP experience?
ARG: I feel that’s too narrow. Neil Simon isn’t considered the chronicler of the Jewish culture. That’s the wrong way to look at it. Not all my plays are about WASPs, though they are usually about the upper middle class bourgeoisie. But they’re also about people who fall in love, get married, have kids. All the problems I’ve dealt with over the years are not just WASP problems; they’re American problems. “The Dining Room” was about middle class life in Buffalo, New York. But other people eat, too! Maybe they don’t have Snow Balls, but they dance, they fall in love with an idealized woman, they try to bring back the past. I admit — particularly about “The Snow Ball” — I’ve been specifically about a culture, but the more specific you get, the more general. The poor WASP is an easy target. I feel critics have put me in a box and left me there. They haven’t noticed how much I’m trying to get out of that — or at least pushing against the sides of it. And I think that’s worth talking about, too. You could say my themes are sometimes elitist, but my forms never are.
PBL: What have been the biggest surprises of your career — both positive and negative?
ARG: The success of “Love Letters” was a big surprise. And you can’t get any WASPier than that! And yet, it has general appeal. It’s been successfully done in Japan, India, and all over the U.S. Ostensibly, the WASPy details are still there — I’ve checked the translations… I never did figure out what made it work. It’s one of the few plays I did hardly any rewriting. I thought it was an epistolary novel. It only accidentally became a play after I sent it into the New Yorker and they rejected it, saying, ‘We don’t publish plays.’
“Sylvia” was another pleasant surprise. It was turned down by a lot of people, primarily on feminist grounds. They said ‘You can’t ask a woman to play a dog. It’s too demeaning.’ They thought it was a sexist play. I wrote it as a lark. Even in the previews at Manhattan Theatre Club, I didn’t know what we had. I thought it was just about this fabulous cast — Sarah Jessica Parker, Blythe Danner, Charlie Kimbrough, Derek Smith. But we discovered many actors can do it.
One of the most shocking things in my career was the New York Times response to “Overtime,” which we did in San Diego two years ago. I rewrote it after that, and thought it was perfect. I thought I’d turned “Merchant of Venice” into “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I was so proud of myself, reworking an old play that had caused a lot of trouble and pain in the world. At the opening night party, no one showed me the review. I read it later, when I got home. It was the most damning review I’d ever had. Vincent Canby had been very good to me before, but he hated it. My dog Lucy, for the first time in her life, pooped all over our apartment. She must’ve sensed my pain and anxiety. It was one of my darkest hours in the theater. It didn’t have much of a life after that. I thought it would have a tremendous life in regional theater. So, you never know. You can’t second-guess the critics. You just have to trust your own creative juices.
PBL: How do you feel about critics comparing you to Chekhov and Ibsen and Cheever?
ARG: I love the comparison to Chekhov and Ibsen. In some ways I’m thematically similar to Chekhov; we both seem to be obsessed with dying cultures and obsolete values trying to survive. But formally, I’m closer to Ibsen, that taut structure where every word relates to the forward motion of the play. Maybe I see a little more Chekhov in “Labor Day”… I think Cheever is a significant writer, somewhat in eclipse. He was the first to point out the disappointment at the heart of the American Dream. I agree with a lot of what he says. I love his style and the rhythms of his prose. I developed “A Cheever Evening” that was first done in New York. Vincent Canby liked that one. It’s been done in a lot of regional theaters.
PBL: So many of your plays have gotten their start in regional theaters, including here in San Diego. But do you still consider New York the real stamp of approval? Does a playwright ever get beyond that?
ARG: The regional theaters are the heart of the American theater. They’re keeping it all going. Broadway is not a valid objective. It’s very musical-oriented and tourist-oriented. But it’s not for serious plays and comedies, except maybe a new Neil Simon.. I’m old enough that I have nostalgia for the big stage and the big red curtain of a Broadway play, that whole number. But the heart of the matter for most playwrights is Off Broadway — profit or not-for-profit — and a decent run in regional theaters. You’re never gonna be rich, but you can stay alive. It’s terribly rewarding to know they like you in San Diego and Seattle and Minneapolis. In my gut, I don’t feel salvation lies only in New York. I grew up on road companies that came to Buffalo. That’s why “Sylvia” and “Love Letters” are so pleasing to me. It’s thrilling to know they can work equally well in a high school auditorium or at the Old Globe.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.