A.R. Gurney, universally known in the theater world as “Pete,” was that rarity of rarities, a WASP of country-club-Republican lineage who wrote witty, thoughtful plays, most of them about the fast-vanishing world of upper-middle-class privilege into which he was born eighty-six years ago. In 2003 I called him “the John P. Marquand of American theater,” which still seems to me wholly apt. Like all prolific artists, Marquand very much included, Gurney was uneven, but his best plays are eloquent and intensely elegiac portraits of a world that is on the edge of extinction, and at least one of them, The Dining Room, is by way of being a masterpiece.
As I wrote in my review of Mark Lamos’s Westport Country Playhouse 2013 revival of The Dining Room:
“The Dining Room” is a piece of virtuoso stagecraft, an extended one-act play in which six actors portray 57 characters, nearly all of whom are WASPs who live or have lived in the same old-fashioned house at various times between the 30’s and 70’s. We see them in youth and old age, joy and despair, assurance and confusion, but though they are almost always shown to us with a smile, we are never allowed to doubt that time has passed them by—and that it should have done so. It is that iron conviction which charges Mr. Gurney’s witty vignettes with the bite that keeps “The Dining Room” from dissolving into soft-centered charm.
The insularity of the community in which his characters live is nicely caught in this brief exchange: “I grew up here.” “Who didn’t?” But the play’s most telling lines are spoken by an outsider, a furniture repairman who inspects the underside of the now-rickety 1898 dining table that is the play’s visual centerpiece and describes it as follows: “It’s well made. It’s a solid, serviceable copy. Based on the English.” If you’re not listening closely, you might fail to notice that those lines have the chiseled ring of an epitaph…
Gurney never had any luck on Broadway, but his plays have long been off-Broadway and regional-theater staples, and I have no doubt that they will continue to be widely performed. While our paths never crossed, I had the good fortune to cover most of his New York premieres in the later years of his long life. I described him on one of the last of those occasions as “an American master, one of the best playwrights that we have.” I mourn his passing with all my heart.
* * *
A.R. Gurney’s New York Times obituary is here.
Gurney talks about writing The Wayside Motor Inn in 1978: