Published in In Theater

Albert Ramsdell Gurney, Jr. (better known as “Pete”) is as witty and urbane, as gentle and gentlemanly as any of his characters.   Like them, he’s a blueblood, a WASP with a long American lineage. His great-grandparents came from England to Buffalo at the beginning of the 19th century; some came earlier, and one fought in the Revolutionary War.

A firm believer that “we all should write from our bones,” he has been dubbed the WASP Neil Simon, a modern-day Chekhov who obsesses about a disappearing culture and obsolete values struggling to survive.   As the keeper of the flame for that dying breed of well-bred, tight-lipped Puritans who are economically privileged but emotionally disadvantaged, Gurney’s primary subject matter has been both the blessing of his success and the bane of his critical response.

“Not all my plays are about WASPs, though they are usually about the upper middle class bourgeoisie,” says the affable Gurney.   “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. I admit I’ve been specifically about a culture, but the more specific you get, the more general. Neil Simon isn’t considered the chronicler of the Jewish culture.   That’s the wrong way to look at it.   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.”

Once again, Gurney is pushing against the sides of that box.   He’s returned to the family, and particularly the playwright, in “The Cocktail Hour” (1988), mixing up a sort of chaser to that aperitif, set nine years later.  

His 23rd full-length play, “Labor Day,” has its world premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre (his tenth production at that venue, where he’s an Associate Artist), February 12-March 15.    Director Jack O’Brien oversaw a reading of the piece last year at the Manhattan Theatre Club, featuring Joyce Van Patten and Josef Sommer, who will reprise their roles at the Old Globe.

The new play is more than a trifle autobiographical.   The protagonist/playwright, like his creator, is in his mid-sixties. He, too, has four children, who are central to his current thinking.

“He’s at the end of his career,” Gurney explains.   “He’s summing up.   It’s Labor Day, the end of summer.   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 [as in “The Cocktail Hour”].   With the younger generation, it’s more difficult. The language is different; the whole culture has changed.”

The play has a lot to say about playwriting.   “The writer has a choice here,” Gurney continues. “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 his play in a much more commercial direction. That’s very hard for the writer. How the play-within-a-play ends is a major issue.

“The story does parallel mine in many ways.   But 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 in Hollywood.   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?”

“Labor Day” may be about a certain family of WASPs (“I don’t think the word ever comes up”), but it also embraces broader themes: “the nature of the American family in the late 1990s, the role of parents, the nature of theater and commercialism, and how hard it is to maintain a simple, unique personal voice in a culture that seems so generalized…   I think [the ending] is qualified but somewhat hopeful about the state of the country at the millennium. It’s certainly not sentimental and idealized.”

The title of his new play has multiple meanings to Gurney.   Labor has to do with the working man, and also with “the end of summer — personally for the playwright and in America. The end of an idyllic, warm season. An awareness that we’re all getting older. Putting away the porch furniture and looking back on the summer and ahead to work and school coming up. It’s also about the birth of a play, the struggles and travails of the birth process of a new play.   That’s Labor Day, too.”

Just like the central character in “The Cocktail Hour,” Gurney is tentative about confronting his family with his autobiographical work. “My father was dead by the time ‘The Cocktail Hour’ was produced. I never could have written it if he were alive; he would’ve killed me. My mother, who turns 90 in January, requested that I not permit the show to be produced in Buffalo, so her friends couldn’t see it. When I told her I’d written a sort of sequel, she wasn’t too pleased, but was at least happy she wasn’t in it. As for my kids [ages 35-39], I didn’t even tell them I was doing it.   They gave my wife and me a 40th anniversary party last June, and I thought it would be a good time to tell them.   But it didn’t cause the explosion I thought it would; that makes life different from art.”

Gurney’s work has caused some explosions he would never have predicted. His two most frequently produced plays — “Love Letters” and “Sylvia” —   were unexpected successes.  

“The success of ‘Love Letters’ was a big surprise,” he says. “And you can’t get any WASPier than that! Yet, it has general appeal. It’s been successfully done in Japan, India, and all over the U.S.   But 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 in to the New Yorker and they rejected it, saying, ‘We don’t publish plays.’ Nobody picked it up and said ‘This is gonna be a big hit.’ Frank Rich didn’t even bother to go; Mel Gussow wrote a little dismissive review. But actors love it.   And the idea of changing casts was accidental; actors got busy with other things. So we made a virtue of necessity. Equity didn’t know what to do with it. They said we’d have to pay people for four weeks of rehearsal.   Soon they realized it employed a lot of actors.

“‘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. My friend John Tillinger always imitated his dog talking.   I said, ‘What if this guy imagines his dog talking?’ He loved it. Even in previews at the Manhattan Theatre Club, we didn’t know what we had.   I thought it was about this fabulous cast — Sarah Jessica Parker, Blythe Danner, Charlie Kimbrough, Derek Smith.   But we discovered that many actors can do it.”

On the down side, Gurney’s biggest shock was the New York Times response to “Overtime,” his sequel to “The Merchant of Venice,” which had gotten mixed reviews in its 1995 San Diego premiere.

“I rewrote it,” says the playwright, “and I thought it was perfect. I thought I’d turned ‘The 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 didn’t read it until later, when I got home. It was the most damning review I’d ever had. 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.”

Gurney, a product of Eastern prep schools and the Yale School of Drama, and a teacher at MIT for 25 years, has not spent all his creative energy on the theater. He’s also written four novels (his latest, “Early American,” is “currently making the rounds”). His focus has often been men in Later Life (that’s even one of his play titles), men who are unable to move away from the past, embrace change, or seize life and live it.   Frank Rich once said Gurney’s men “never grow up and never have to.” The playwright chuckles at the idea, and offers his qualified agreement.

“In some ways, I think that is true.   I hope the protagonist of this new play   [“Labor Day”] 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… 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.”

©1998 Patté Productions Inc.