It’s several hours before show time and playwright A.R. Gurney sits happily among the groups of people milling about the foyer of the Pershing Square Signature Center, home to the Signature Theatre Company, which is presenting his latest work, Love & Money. The octogenarian, a native of Buffalo, New York, has been writing plays for nearly half a century, mostly wry comedies about his own white Anglo-Saxon Protestant upbringing. Gurney is famous for his acute observation of a privileged and disappearing class—characters with impeccable breeding and private-school educations, who sip martinis at cocktail hour and give perfect dinner parties, regardless of the disruptions that shake the world around them. Love & Money, about a wealthy widow who’s decided to give away most of her money and possessions before she dies because she feels she has “committed the crime of having too much money,” is playing at the off-Broadway venue through October 4. I sat down with Gurney to discuss his latest work, how his plays have been labeled, and the risk that often comes with putting so much of himself, and his family, on the stage.
You’ve said that you didn’t expect to be writing a new play, but here you are with Love & Money. How did that come about?
It arose from coming here to the Signature Theatre. They were doing two revivals of mine and said, “How about writing a new play?” I had just finished a play for the Flea Theater and I didn’t feel like writing, but the atmosphere here is just wonderful. Just look around: The audience tends to create itself before you go in. You see yourself as a theatergoer among many theatergoers, which is different from, say, Broadway, where they like to make you stand in line and then rush you to your seat.
So, here I am at 84 years old and I felt like I was going through an experience I had when I was about 24. I had the first reading of the play and it just didn’t seem to work at all, but I saw what I might be able to do with it. I had this off-stage character and the director, Mark Lamos, suggested I bring her around at the end, so I did. By the time the play was through, I had five or six more turns for that character. It was that kind of experience: returning to it, rewriting it, testing it. You know, when I went to the Yale School of Drama, we were constantly told plays aren’t written, but rewritten. We did a lot of tuning and cutting on this play, and it was a great pleasure. And I’m proud of what came out.
Did you know what the play was going to be about when you started?
I didn’t. I’ve written plays where I had to do research and grasp a new subject. Some have worked and some haven’t, but I didn’t think I’d have the time, so I turned to the culture that I grew up in. And I turned to—and exaggerated and amplified—an experience my wife and I are going through now, namely de-acquisitioning things, moving to a smaller place and handing out a lot of furniture to our children. It’s about simplifying our lives so when we die they aren’t going to be loaded with stuff to do.
But in the end, what was exciting was that the actors were very good and they were very responsive to what I was doing. For instance, the character who originally had six lines is Agnes [played by Pamela Dunlap], the Irish maid. In the process of rewriting, I realized the maid should be very important, because the culture I am writing about couldn’t live without someone in the kitchen. This is a terrific maid, as she’s been very well taken care of financially, and she’s great pals with Cornelia Cunningham [played by Maureen Anderman], the matriarch of the house. She’s a major guest at the dinner party at the end.
Do you mind that you’re invariably described as the WASP playwright?
I used to. The standard cliché was “WASP chronicler.” which sounded as if I was just copying things down. But I recognize that you’re bound to be categorized. John Cheever was called a WASP chronicler and Faulkner was called a Southern writer.
Did your family and relatives object to your putting their lives on stage?
Yes! A lot of people did. My play Family Furniture, which we did at the Flea Theater in 2013, is fairly close to home. It’s about an affair that my mother had. The children of the man, even though he was a different character in the play, and I masked the name, they knew it immediately and were furious with me for even bringing up what was supposed to be a total secret. We’re talking about three generations ago! My father, of course, didn’t like it at all when I wrote plays, because he thought I was poking fun at my family, which I was.
It does seem, however, that even while you criticize the culture you also care about the characters and uphold their better values.
I’m glad to hear you say that. And don’t you think that’s true about Cornelia? I hope the audience likes her. She’s kind of batty at times, but her heart’s in the right place. I think this play, and I couldn’t believe I was doing this, is the radically dramatic and critical of my own culture. But at the end, the culture reasserts itself, I hope, in a better way. They all end up a dinner party and there’s nothing like a good dinner party to bring people together.
Love & Money introduces a young African-American into this closed world. Would you say that in recent decades that you’ve become more and more interested in how outsiders affect the WASP families in your plays?
I think so. It would be hard for me to describe to you how hermetic and unchallenged this culture was, that I grew up in, partly because Buffalo itself was kind of sealed off from the rest of the world at that time. My mother and father were both born in Buffalo and so were all my grandparents. So we were very tight families. They didn’t always mix, but they were all there. It was only when I was in the Navy that I began to realize that there were other things in the world, and realized some of the silly limitations in my own culture. So when I came back, I couldn’t help but want to write about it.
I don’t think I had ever written an African-American role before. I kept saying to Gabriel Brown, who plays the part of Walker in the play, “Is this racist? Does this offend you in any way?” I also talked to his mother and aunt who were there. Of course, some of the things that I thought were racist turned out not to be, and vice versa.
In the play this young man is offered a pathway to the theater as a way out of his circumstances…
I think it’s salvation for a lot of young people where it wasn’t before. There were no interns in the theaters when I was growing up. Look around at the number of young people that are now interns in the theater—and not simply because they like opera and plays. They see the internship as leading in a number different ways: toward television, for example, toward writing.
When you started working with the younger people in the profession, at the Flea Theater about a decade ago, did it seem like a new phase in your career?
It did. Swoosie Kurtz called and said she was doing this play called The Guys in a place called the Flea and that it was a terrific play about 9/11. So I went over and saw it, and I met Jim Simpson, who was the artistic director at the time. And he said, “If you ever wanted to do a play, we’ll do it here.” So, one thing led to another and I worked with Jim on seven or eight plays. Some of them were pretty scatterbrained and…
And very political.
Yes. At that time it was George W. Bush. He was so much of the culture that I came from. I just could not abide with that guy being the president and doing what he was doing—which made some of my plays rather simple-minded and polemic. But some of them worked out. There was one called Mrs. Farnsworth with John Lithgow and Sigourney Weaver, which I think was quite good. And I also liked working with limited finances—dancing with chains, as they say. And also hearing what the young people had to say.
Your play Sylvia is about to be revived on Broadway, but when you wrote it just over 20 years ago you said you found it difficult to get it produced. Can you tell us little about how that play came about?
Yes, it’s very popular now, but at the time they said, “You can’t ask a female actress to play a dog!” I’ve always had a dog, and I was always the one in the family who was responsible for the dog. So I’ve always written about dogs. In this particular case I was working, writing something out in the country, while my wife was working in town. She came over for the weekend and there was this dog. She was furious. She said, “You didn’t tell me about this. Either you or that dog has got to go.” And, so, the pain, agony, and love that I had for this dog merged into the play.
What’s next? Will you continue writing?
The two plays of mine that were revived here at Signature, What I Did Last Summer and The Wayside Motor Inn, were very well received this time. They were slaughtered by the critics when they first came out. So not only did I feel somewhat redeemed by that, there’s this new one, Love & Money, which emerged through rewrites, which I personally think came out rather nicely. I have two new ones, which go together and I want to do at the Flea, but I certainly don’t want to overload the circuits. I’m not Sophocles. He wrote his last play, I think, when he was 90. It takes a lot out of me. I get all wound-up and I just need to relax a little. So maybe if I’m still alive, as my father used to say, maybe you’ll see them at the end of next year.