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This story by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on October 28, 1998. All rights reserved.

The Dark & Light Side of A.R. Gurney

We are told that the new dark comedy "Darlene and the Guest Lecturer," a world premiere that opens this Wednesday, October 28, at the George Street Playhouse represents a daring departure for the celebrated playwright A.R. Gurney. But daring moves that turn the suburban experience on its head are not uncommon for this American master of contemporary domestic drama.

The proverbial can of worms was officially opened when Gurney's second professionally produced, revue-styled play "Scenes From American Life" opened in 1971 at Lincoln Center's Forum Theater stage. Its Orwellian theme, in which a time machine travels from the Depression years through our present, was especially notable for its comedy scenes that focused on the lives of the rich.

"Pete" Gurney, as the author is commonly known to his friends, undoubtedly had to answer to his christened name, Albert Ramsdell, when his father, a prominent and successful Buffalo businessman, took umbrage at "Scenes From American Life," which he considered a betrayal of the author's family. Gurney Senior was so angered by his son's play that he didn't speak to him for almost a year. Although Gurney says his parents were never terribly interested in his career as a playwright, his father felt that he should not write about the private world in which he grew up. "He felt I was a smart ass," says Gurney. It seems this was the first play in which Gurney attempted to dramatize his hypothesis that WASPs are not as boring as they appear.

The young "smart ass" got even smarter with stints at St. Paul's School, Williams College, the U.S. Navy, and the Yale School of Drama, from which he graduated in 1958. "I've been writing a long long time," says Gurney, whose first published play, only four pages long, appeared in the "Best Short Plays of 1955." Now he is widely known as the author of "Sylvia," "Love Letters," and "The Dining Room."

In 1981, his play "The Dining Room" created a stir in New York when it opened to enthusiastic notices Off-Broadway. The time was right for critics and audiences to take to heart his comically anthropological investigation of upper class genteel Northeastern WASPs. When "The Dining Room" was produced at McCarter Theater in 1984, critic Alvin Klein wrote that the play "is as edifying a study in sociology as it is a winning evening of theatrical ingenuity." Gurney became the acknowledged "spokesman for the WASP," a label he once deplored but which no longer bothers him.

In a phone interview from his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, I ask Gurney if this mix of sociology and theater always fascinated him.

"No, no, no," Gurney responds with laugh. "It only seems like sociology because that world hadn't been written about for a while. When I started writing, it must have looked like a sociological study -- like a tribe from New Guinea that had just been discovered," he says.

We concur that that world was well-covered in the 1930s and '40s by such playwrights as S.N. Berman, Philip Barry, and Robert E. Sherwood. Certainly novelists like Cheever, Marquand, and even Salinger kept the middle class alive in their best sellers. Although many novelists are known for their work in this genre, there are precious few playwrights.

Two decades passed before Gurney picked up the mantle as champion of middle class lives on stage. Some of those plays -- "The Middle Ages," "The Perfect Party," "Children," and "Love Letters" -- are gracefully achieving classic status.

Has exposing the upper crust now run its course? "Yes and no," Gurney replies. "It's a world I grew up in, and a way of life that has pretty much disappeared. I do spend a lot of time thinking about that, especially as I get older. So I'm not going to say I've finished talking or writing about it. I hope I can always go on looking at it in a slightly different way."

Gurney is quick to point out that whereas Barry wrote about the very rich with a certain kind of adulation, he himself does not. Gurney laughs when I suggest that he is famous for writing about attractive people delivering attractive dialogue.

"The world strikes me as a funny place," he says. "Every time I try to get darker and more serious everyone starts telling me how the play has a lot of laughs in it. Some of my darker themes are often perceived as being light and attractive." Despite Gurney's many Off-Broadway successes, his Broadway ventures -- "Sweet Sue" starring Mary Tyler Moore and Lynn Redgrave, and "The Golden Age" starring Irene Worth, Stockard Channing, and Jeff Daniels -- were poorly received. Gurney feels that his plays work best and belong in "a smaller frame."

While Gurney, more than any other playwright, has chronicled the gradual disintegration of a particular breed of American aristocracy, it appears that now he is carefully and courageously moving into lesser-known territory.

Quoting Tennessee Williams "You always write the same play," brings Gurney to consider his attempt to stretch in another direction. This he did most notably with "Sylvia," a whimsical piece about a stray dog, a role written to be played by a charming, attractive actress. George Street Playhouse produced "Sylvia" soon after the conclusion of its New York run at the Manhattan Theater Club. "Sylvia" will be playing at the Off-Broadstreet Dessert Theater in Hopewell, opening Friday, November 6, and continuing weekends through December 12 (609-466-2766).

Gurney's "Darlene and the Guest Lecturer," comprised of two thematically-linked works, introduces a duo of unusual women, each played by Nancy Opel, each contemplating new paths in their all-too-familiar lives. First there's Angela, whose discovery of a titillating, mysterious note left on her car windshield -- addressed to "Darlene" -- creates fuel for speculation and strain in her own mundane marriage. Then comes Mona, the beleaguered leader of a small regional theater company, who has taken the struggle for theatrical survival into the realm of the diabolical. The best show in town is Mona's lecture series, where being center stage can become life threatening. Also featured in the cast are Robert Stanton, Rex Robbins, and M. Ehlinger.

Gurney freely admits that when "The Guest Lecturer" was given its first reading at Lincoln Center, some were offended. His intention, he says, was to delve into the roots of classic ancient pre-Hellenic comedy prior to Aristophanes. (I don't have the guts to ask him to explain that.) "I tried to write a play that moved us back in a comic way," he says. When George Street's artistic director David Saint expressed interest, he said, "Okay, if you have the guts and get the same kick out of the play as I do, let's do it."

Because "The Guest Lecturer" is only an hour long, George Street needed a companion piece. For this Gurney revived a script he had written years before for television. Knowing that both plays were written about the same time and had a similar texture, Gurney suggests to Saint that there might be a way for him to integrate the two into one evening.

This production serves as a reunion of sorts for Saint and Gurney. Before joining George Street Playhouse, Saint directed Gurney's play "The Fourth Wall," which toured with George Segal and Betty Buckley. Like "The Fourth Wall," "The Guest Lecturer" has an absurdist element that makes the audience an integral part of the action. "The play cannot take place without an audience," says Gurney.

Saddened by the critical reception to his last play "Labor Day," a play of which he is especially fond, Gurney is currently preparing for the premiere of "Far East," a new play scheduled for production at the Manhattan Theater Club this season.

In 1996, Gurney officially retired as a tenured professor of American literature and the humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Now as Gurney, the self-described husband of one, father of four, and the grandfather of six, spends more time in his home in Roxbury, he will undoubtedly keep coming up with new ways to turn the suburban experience on its head.

-- Simon Saltzman

Darlene & the Guest Lecturer, George Street Playhouse , 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Opens Wednesday, October 28, and plays to November 22. $24 to $32.

The Real Guest Lecturer: Playwright A.R. Gurney is featured in a free, post-play symposium, after the matinee. Sunday, November 15.

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