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A.R. Gurney, the playwright who in such comedies as The Dining Room, The Middle Ages and Sylvia chronicled the foibles and fantasies of the well-heeled American WASPS of which he was a quintessential exemplar, died Tuesday at his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He was 86.
Gurney– officially A.R. but known to all as Pete – may best be remembered today for Love Letters, his epistolary two-hander describing the lives of childhood friends that has become a staple of fundraisers with guest stars and resident theaters with small budgets. (A 2014 Broadway production and subsequent tour featured an evolving cast that launched with Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow and later starred Carol Burnett, Alan Alda and Candice Bergen.)
Gregory Mosher, who staged that production, wrote Wednesday on Facebook:
“My friend, colleague, and CT neighbor Pete Gurney died yesterday. He was a fine writer and a lovely man. We worked together on and off over the years, most recently on the Broadway Love Letters, during which I discovered a writer of even more richness than I had already experienced. Buried in that sneaky little play is a lot of pain, and an acute awareness of how really hard self-knowledge is.”
His 1982 play The Dining Room presented the lives of several generations of an upper-class family through the prism of events set in the titular space. Alcohol often played a role in Gurney’s psychologically astute group portraits, wherein individual family members struggled for recognition in a milieu that abjured overt emotionalism. Feelings were to be repressed, no matter how dark the truths from which they emerged.
“A teacher of American literature and the humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mr. Gurney is a product of privilege (son of a Buffalo businessman) and of academe (educated at St. Paul’s, Williams College and the Yale School of Drama),” I wrote in a New York Times profile of Gurney. “With such plays as The Middle Ages‘ (1978) and ‘The Dining Room (1982), he would emerge over the next decade as an American Terence Rattigan, writing with an interweaving detachment and no small sense of nostalgia intricately crafted scenes of a Protestant culture challenged by Jews, blacks, women and others seeking a share of the American pie.”
Once, when took him on a tour of Dallas’ ultra-wealthy enclave of Highland Park, I spoke with him about his fragmented affection for the upper-classes, and his sense that their values and lives were being subsumed by rougher cultural influences. Peering out the window at the mansions and manicured lawns around us, he said to me, with a glinty-eyed smile, “Well, I guess the WASPs aren’t in decline here.”
Gurney knew intimately whereof he wrote. The son of a well-off Buffalo, NY businessman and his wife, Albert Ramsdell Gurney followed up his Ivy League education teaching literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the academic infighting and one-upsmanship, as well as the entitlement of some students, worked their way into his work as both playwright and novelist.
It wasn’t until after leaving Boston and MIT for New York that Gurney began to make his mark as a playwright, finding homes at such nonprofit mainstays as Playwrights Horizons and the Manhattan Theatre Club. His own nature was invariably patrician with a dash of rue, and his work ranged from gentle humor to bitingly acidic: In the semi-autobiographical plays The Cocktail Party and The Middle Ages, characters who stood in for the author confronted the stresses of being an artist in buttoned-up surroundings and familial embrace.
As with American novelists like John Updike, Gurney greeted the injection into the culture of non-WASP hues and rhythms with a mixed sense of bemused philosophical interest and agnosticism bordering on resentment, as in his difficult and poorly-received play Another Antigone, about the explosive conflict between a Gentile classics professor and a female Jewish student. In our discussion about the play, he expressed his loathing of anti-Semitism and his fear of being accused of it, which would have been unjust.
In 1995’s Sylvia, which was revived on Broadway in 2015, an Upper West Sider brings a dog home to the apartment he shares with his wife, and shows more and more stress as the dog takes over his life. In the original off-Broadway production, the dog was played by Sarah Jessica Parker. In the Broadway revival, she was played by Annaleigh Ashford, while the husband was played by Parker’s husband, Matthew Broderick.
Actors, including the likes of W.H. Macy and Christopher Walken and others too countless to list, loved Gurney’s work for the challenges it offered, and directors loved it for the subtlety of the writing. Audiences loved it for both reasons.
Gurney is survived by his wife of 60 years, Molly Goodyear; two siblings; four children; and eight grandchildren.
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