Family, friends and fans filled Broadway’s Music Box Theatre on Tuesday afternoon to remember the prolific playwright A.R. Gurney, the Love Letters and Dining Room author who died June 13 at 86. Among those speaking and in some cases singing under the writer’s characteristically quizzical gaze were Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, husband and wife actors who had starred in Gurney’s Sylvia, though in productions 20 years apart.
“In 1995, I was not insulted to be asked to play a dog,” Parker recalled of the comedy’s premiere, in a Manhattan Theatre Club production at New York City Center. She played the title role, an ingratiating canine who is come upon in Central Park and adopted by a man in mid-life crisis, or at least mid-life neurosis (he alone can hear her speak), unnerving his wife.
Setting the tone for much of what followed, Parker thanked Gurney for his “wise counsel,” calling him an exemplar of wisdom, decency, honesty and dedication. She couldn’t explain how he retained his uncommon gentleness and unflappability, she said, “that Pete was simply well-adjusted.”
That drew an appreciative laugh. Parker then sang Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” prompting some audible responses at the line, “But how strange the change from major to minor / Ev’ry time we say goodbye.”
Broderick, speaking a bit later, played the man in that play in a Broadway production in 2015 (the title role was taken by Annaleigh Ashford). Broderick noted that his father, James Broderick, had starred in an earlier Gurney play, 1971’s Scenes From American Life, which he’d watched from the wings as a young boy. For Sylvia, his dressing room was three elevatorless flights of stairs above stage level, Broderick said, yet Gurney, by now elderly, was undeterred in making his way up after each preview performance to ask how he was doing.
James Earl Jones read the final missive from Love Letters, the massively popular two-hander that tracks the decades of a loving friendship between a man and woman, best friends, begun in childhood and ending only with her death.
The program was narrated by another husband and wife team, Sigourney Weaver and Jim Simpson, whose Flea Theatre was one of several artistic homes to Gurney and whose just-opened downtown complex includes a theater named for him.
Holland Taylor, an early proponent of Gurney’s words, spoke about preceding him by a few years to New York. “Pete Gurney was my first, last and only playwright,” she said, meaning that like many actors, she felt a proprietary interest in the man who became best known as a chronicler of the demise, imagined and real, mourned and celebrated, of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture. “He may have hung his heritage out to dry,” she wryly noted, “but always put it on the next day.”
Actress Rebecca Luker also sang in tribute, and there were recollections from actor James Waterston, director Jack O’Brien, producers André Bishop and Carol Ostrow, and, most poignantly, the four children of Pete and his wife of 60 years, Molly.