Albert Ramsdell Gurney, Jr. was born in 1930, scion of a prosperous Buffalo family. He grew up, in his words, “surrounded by plays” — at school, on the radio, at the charity performances of his parents’ social clubs, on weekend trips to local theatres and Broadway. While his upper class milieu hardly considered dramatic writing an exemplary career, it was in many ways the natural trajectory for a man who had been immersed in the theatre since childhood.
Most of Gurney’s early works were musicals, held together by snappy lyrics and makeshift plots. At St. Paul’s School, he flexed his dramatic muscles by writing numerous skits and revues. Later, at Williams College, he was influenced by his older classmate, Stephen Sondheim, who was responsible for composing the college’s spring musical. When Sondheim graduated, Gurney wrote with classic self-deprecation, “His distinguished mantle fell heavily on my puny shoulders” — though another classmate, George Steinbrenner, was on hand to help with piano accompaniments. The ongoing draft led Gurney to enroll as a Naval officer after college, and while sailing the Mediterranean, he recruited members of the crew and band to perform original pieces on the hangar deck.
Back in the States, Gurney enrolled in the Yale School of Drama. There, he penned Love in Buffalo, the first musical ever produced by that institution.
The cast of the Huntington's production of The Snow Ball (1991). Photo: John E. Fogle
After graduation, feeling “that [he] had told the world everything [he] had to say,” he accepted jobs teaching literature — first at Belmont Hill School, then at MIT, where he remained for the next 25 years. In that time, he wrote a steady stream of plays, mostly short pieces that were performed in cafés and other informal venues around Boston. These ranged from Anouilh-inspired retellings of classic tales — The Odyssey at an upper-class garden party, David and Bathsheba as an evening news show — to more experimental pieces, like the fourth-wall-busting The Rape of Bunny Stuntz. However, he wrote in a 2009 essay, “For those long years, I was a teacher who wrote, secretly yearning to be a writer who taught.”
That opportunity came at last when The Dining Room opened at Playwrights Horizons in 1982. While drawing on the sketch-writing techniques he had honed throughout his career — the play is a series of scenes linked by theme rather than plot — The Dining Room displayed both “compassion” and “power,” in the measured praise of Frank Rich’s review in The New York Times. Moreover, it cemented Gurney’s place as “a gentlemanly chronicler of the twilight of the country club gentile,” as a more recent piece in that paper described him.
Having claimed his dramatic territory, Gurney began to write with enviable prolificacy. And while nearly all his best- known works — including Love Letters, What I Did Last Summer, and The Cocktail Hour — portray his ancestral slice of American society, they do so with a heightened theatricality and melancholy undercurrent that distinguish his works from other comedies of manners. In Sylvia, the main character is a talking dog; in Sweet Sue, the conflicting desires of each of the two characters are embodied by two different actors. In both plays, the ending brings not comedic resolution, but fracture and separation. Little wonder, then, that Gurney cites Pinter’s The Homecoming and Marat/Sade as greater influences than The Philadelphia Story.
Gurney’s experimental interests and satirical bent persist in his work with The Flea Theater in Manhattan, where seven of his plays have seen production to date (an eighth, Family Furniture, premieres November 12). The New York Times has referred to this relationship as “an unlikely alliance of avant-garde and old guard,” though Gurney’s role vis-a-vis his own background has always been more Socratic gadfly than ardent defender. Heresy, which ran at The Flea in October of 2012, presented a modern-day Jesus defying consumerist society and conformist government. Mrs. Farnsworth, written amidst the high emotion of the 2004 presidential campaign, depicts an upper-class Connecticut matron who threatens to reveal troubling secrets about her past with the President.
Manhattan’s Primary Stages has also embraced Gurney’s plays, producing several works that explore the playwright’s Buffalo roots: The Fourth Wall (2002), which features Brechtian alienation and Cole Porter songs; Indian Blood (2006), which revisits the themes of ancestral influence present in The Cocktail Hour; and Buffalo Gal (2008), an homage to Chekhov and the dying days of grand theatrical tradition, with a cast that included James Waterston (who plays John in this production). The latter two were both directed by Mark Lamos, a longtime friend and collaborator.
Far from a “chronicler” or “eulogist,” agonizing over the intricacies of a slow-fading culture, Gurney is a writer committed to the vitality and immediacy of theatrical forms. However conventional his worlds may seem at first, they invariably unfold under a darker, richer dramatic sensibility.