Its prolific author, popularly referred to as “The Chronicler of The Wasps,” playwright A.R. Gurney died at the age of 86, on June 13, 2017. He was widely known as “Pete,” a nickname given to him by his mother. On September 12, 2017, a memorial tribute was held for him at The Music Box Theatre, in New York City.
“He was simply well-adjusted” is how Ms. Parker described Mr. Gurney’s calm presence during Sylvia’s rehearsals. Parker was the first of several notable speakers and ended her appearance by singing Gurney’s favorite songwriter Cole Porter’s song “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” accompanied by pianist Joseph Thalken. It was while singing it during her cabaret act at The Russian Tea Room that Gurney saw her and wanted her for the play.
Her husband Matthew Broderick hilariously spoke of his long involvement with Gurney that began in 1971, at the age of nine when he saw his father James Broderick act in Gurney’s play Scenes from American Life. Years later Mr. Broderick was to perform in Gurney’s play Love Letters. Broderick went to Brooks Brothers to buy “the perfect tie” to wear for the production and asked a clerk, “What do you people wear?” He was also in the unsuccessful 2015 Broadway revival of Sylvia. “Well, eight weeks on Broadway for a play about a dog isn’t so bad,” Gurney said to him. He loved dogs and had five during his lifetime.
James Earl Jones powerfully read the concluding speech from Love Letters. That play is presented as a reading, and is comprised of the correspondence between an upper class man and woman who have a troubled romance. Originally intended as an epistolary novel, it was eventually put on as a play and is among Gurney’s most performed works. It premiered at a New York Public Library event, read by Gurney and Holland Taylor, who revealed that the occasion was supposed to be a lecture delivered by Gurney.
“Pete Gurney was my first, and only personal playwright,” said Ms. Taylor. Taylor appeared in his opening and closing night Off-Broadway flop The David Show, in 1968. The New York Time’s review was so bad, “that he puked in the middle of MacDougal Street.” She was also in his 1988 play The Cocktail Hour that was a big hit Off-Broadway. Jack O’Brien who directed that production warmly recalled the experience, and lamented how a bad review in Boston derailed their collaboration, The Snow Ball, from coming to New York City.
The Rape of Bunny Stuntz was Gurney’s first play and due to Edward Albee’s intervention it was presented at The Cherry Lane Theatre where it ran briefly in 1964.
Artistic Director of Lincoln Center Theater André Bishop emotionally stated that in 1981, when he was Playwrights Horizons’ Artistic Director, the desperate Gurney sent him the script of The Dining Room. Mr. Bishop instigated a reading of it which led to a full-scale production.
After writing plays for 20 years, and now in his 50’s, it was Gurney’s first major success. He was able to give up teaching to write full-time, which he had previously done during summers. It also made it possible for him to buy a house in Connecticut, where he played tennis with his neighbor Arthur Miller.
Sigourney Weaver, who acted in Gurney’s plays Mrs. Farnsworth and Crazy Mary, periodically appeared onstage with her husband Jim Simpson. Mr. Simpson was the former Artistic Director of The Flea Theater which presented 15 of Gurney’s works. Throughout the celebration the couple reminisced about the writer and recited biographical details about him, while illustrative slides depicting his life were projected. At the conclusion of this portion, in white lettering on a black background, were projected the titles of Gurney’s 48 plays. It was a stark testament to his achievements.
Albert Ramsdell Gurney, Jr. was born in Buffalo, New York, on November 1, 1930 to a prominent, upper middle-class family. A sensitive child who was sent to boarding schools, he was smitten with the theater to the unease of his unsupportive businessman father. He broke with family tradition by not attending Yale, instead going to Williams College.
After serving in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, he attended the Yale School of Drama on the G.I. Bill. In 1957, after having met her less than a year earlier, he married Mary Forman Goodyear, known as “Molly.” Between 1958 and 1962, they had four children. During this time he was hired as a teacher of classical literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The Flea Theater’s Producing Director Carol Ostrow fondly described working with him, and actor James Waterston passionately recounted how helpful Gurney had been to him.
Music was a major feature of the program. Mr. Thalken gorgeously played Cole Porter tunes as the audience entered the theater, and before the commemoration began. Rebecca Luker delightfully sang Porter’s “(You’d Be So) Easy to Love,” “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” and “All Of You.” Actor and singer Tommy Crawford led the audience in a stirring rendition of The Navy Hymn that closed the memorial.
“My dad always told me to keep it brief,” said Gurney’s son Ben. He and his sisters Amy and Evie all told marvelous anecdotes and read imaginary letters to him. Their brother George spoke of visiting him at his home on his last day alive. Gurney was ill in bed, and faintly said, “This is dying.” George asked his mother if an ambulance had been called. Gurney didn’t want any intervention and later had, “a beautiful death.”
In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be sent to The Flea Theater, 20 Thomas Street, New York, NY 10007.
A.R. Gurney Memorial (September 12, 2017)
Presented by The Flea Theater
The Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street, in Manhattan
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission