Society on stage


Joseph Goebbels, who once or more than once declared: “Whenever I hear the word culture I reach for my revolver,” would have gone for his gat at least twice if he’d heard super prolific dramatist A.R. Gurney, now 78 years old, talk about two plays he’d written some 20 years apart.

Both are set in Gurney’s home town, Buffalo, New York. I guess one would have to call them comedies, as the labeling goes these days, though Gurney’s almost nakedly autobiographical “The Cocktail Hour,” an Off-Broadway hit of 1989 which enjoyed a revisit here just a few weeks ago, is a serious comedy indeed.

“I couldn’t write it until my father died,” Gurney told me last week, “and I couldn’t let it be done in Buffalo until my mother died.” Indeed, in “The Cocktail Hour” a playwright goes home to Buffalo for a night or two to seek permission from his comfortable, old-school parents – whose answer to every crisis is just one more cocktail – for a play of his on precisely that theme to be produced in public. And doesn’t get it.

Rereading it now, there are times I came close to tears. For his part, Gurney says he was quite dry-eyed, writing it – as dry as his mother’s martinis. “When she got into her 90s,” he told me last week, “the doctors said alcohol wasn’t good for her, so we tried watering down her martinis, but she would always know immediately. This is a play about a lost culture – the lost culture of alcohol.”

Far less “internal,” far more objective – straight off the plate into your gizzard — is Gurney’s more recent “Buffalo Gal,” a theater piece about theater. After runs in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and Buffalo, it runs through Sept. 13 at 59E59 Theaters. The setting is the day before opening night of a production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” at a little theater in Buffalo, where the eagerly (and nervously) awaited visiting star is a soap-opera-famous Buffalo gal named Amanda who hopes a return to her roots will jump-start the renewal of her fading career.

Gurney says he doesn’t know exactly where the idea for “Buffalo Gal” came from, “but I do know about regional theater and how tough it is. I know the precarious nature of theater in Buffalo, and of the whole theater culture I grew up with.”

Ah there, Herr Goebbels. You can put the gun away now!

Good actors are always eager to get into plays by Albert Ramsdell (Pete) Gurney. (“There’s a Junior I also got rid of when my father died.”)

Nancy Marchand made a tour de force of Ann (the mother) in the original run of “The Cocktail Hour.” Betty Buckley glittered as Amanda, the Buffalo gal, in the workup of that play up there in Buffalo itself. And almost every actor of consequence has appeared one time or another over the years in rotating performances of Gurney’s “Love Letters.”

Still and all, Gurney was once turned down by Hume Cronyn, to whom the playwright had offered “The Cocktail Hour” as a vehicle for Cronyn and Jessica Tandy (Mrs. Cronyn). ”Then I got a letter from him, saying he didn’t want to play a curmudgeon.” In truth, Bradley, the father in that play, is a lot of self-delusory things, but a curmudgeon is not one of them.

Gurney indeed knows first-hand about “the precarious nature of theater in Buffalo.” The playhouse where Betty Buckley did “Buffalo Gal” six years ago – the Studio Arena, a community theater – bit the dust only a few months ago.

“Buffalo, of course, has exaggerated problems,” Gurney says. “There’s no downtown left, and the Studio Arena Theater was downtown. It was originally the last burlesque theater built in the United States after World War II. There used to be seven or eight movie theaters downtown, six or eight department stores. That’s all gone. They [the city fathers] tried all sorts of steps to keep downtown, they even built a subway, and nobody rode it. Goes from nowhere to nowhere, fast.”

The theater culture Gurney grew up with included another famous venue now long gone, the Erlanger Theater.

“All the Broadway shows came through there. My parents subscribed to the Erlanger and to the Theater Guild. A lot of theater people are from Buffalo – and environs, I should say. Katharine Cornell, of course. Namcy Marchand. Michael Bennett. George Abbott. Lucille Ball. Cornell would open her plays at the Erlanger. Helen Hayes came through in ‘Twelfth Night,’ with Maurice Evans. Paul Robeson came through in ‘Othello.’”

Reviewers and other journalists never tire of dropping the word WASP into anything they write about A.R. Gurney, because that of course is what he is – white Anglo-Saxon Protestant – and primarily investigates and records the mores of that set.

“Buffalo Gal” contains two incidental characters who don’t fit the mold: a powerful black actor who started out in amateur theatricals with young, unknown Amanda years ago, and a talkative songwriting Jewish dentist who was that Amanda’s lover also years ago.

“That’s all made up,” says Gurney, though Amanda herself may owe something to one or two actresses he has known. “When I was a kid, the Jewish community in Buffalo was very different from the WASP community. There were very few Jews in my school, for instance. I played on that. As I’m sure you know, critics tend to stereotype WASPs. I suppose it’s only fair, because for a long time we [WASPs] stereotyped Jews.”

Gurney has been getting bad reviews along with the good as far back as “The David Show,” a refreshing 1969 newcomer’s entry at the Players’ Theater on MacDougal Street. It got slapped down, like a fly, everywhere in the press except by this playgoer and (the late) Edith Oliver of the New Yorker.

“You couldn’t save the play,” Gurney said now, “but you saved my ego.”

A recent callow dismissal in The Times of his reborn “Cocktail Hour” impelled me to say: “Pete, they’ve got a stable of rookies who step up to the plate, one by one, each trying to hit a home run in nastiness.”

Gurney nodded. “I went and told the cast: ‘Don’t be discouraged. This has happened many times.’ Still,” he said now, “I feel sorry for younger writers today. There’s no salvation now. No way out if they crucify you. ‘The Cocktail Hour’ was crucified when it opened in San Diego under Jack O’Brien’s direction 20 years ago, but it went on to play eight months at the Promenade in New York, and then the Kennedy Center, and then a touring company with Fritz Weaver and Elizabeth Wilson.”

In that play the mother tells her playwriting son that she didn’t pay as much attention to him as she should have when he was a youngster because she was secretly writing a book.

“I thought I had made that up,” says Gurney, “and then, before she died, my mother [Marion Spaulding Gurney] told me that years earlier she had rented a room with a typewriter down near her father’s house in Buffalo. My father made her give it up. And then when she died I found a story she had written, and it was excellent.”

What was it about?

“About Buffalo society.”

You wrote about that.

“Yeah,” said Pete Gurney, “I wrote about that.”

You go home and get your panties,

I’ll go home and get my scanties,

And away we’ll go,

Oh oh ohhh,

Buffle off to shuffle,

Shuffle off to Buff-a-lo!

Well, not exactly.

BUFFALO GAL. By A.R. Gurney. Directed by Mark Lamos. With Mark Blum, Carmen M. Herlihy, Jennfer Regan, Susan Sullivan, James Waterston, Dathan B. Williams. Through Sept. 13 as a Primary Stages presentation at 59E59 Theaters, (212) 279-4200, or www.ticketcentral.com.