I’m trying to move away from the light form of the drawing-room comedy,” A. R. Gurney told a New York Times interviewer in 1989, in an article focusing on the success (despite a mixed Times review) of The Cocktail Hour, his semi-autobiographical piece about a playwright who informs his parents he’s used them as characters in his new satire. In the offing, the article suggested, was “a new Gurney play that will focus on his generation as the parents instead of the children.”
Such a play finally premiered last spring – but in The Fourth Wall, Gurney didn’t move away from drawing-room comedy so much as he rushed at it and tore it limb from limb. The deconstruction was delicate, of course; genteel politeness is a hallmark of Gurney as both man and writer, and probably ever will be. That’s one of the things that annoy his critics: the lack of explosiveness in his work, despite the sometimes provocative situations he sets up.
But though verbal and physical violence was kept to a discreet minimum – an irritated expletive here, a flare-up of obscenity there, a vase tossed noisily and disrespectfully into a fireplace – Gurney’s assault on comedy of manners was comparatively devastating in The Fourth Wall, which was presented in Chicago in March under the auspices of Feenix Productions International. And a viewing of Gurney’s most recent play, the emotionally intense and critically acclaimed Later Life – which opened at Playwrights Horizons in New York City in late May, just as The Fourth Way was finishing its Chicago run – suggests that in The Fourth Wall’s wake Gurney has begun to reach depths of feeling missing in his earlier work.
While few observers have serious complaints about the craftsmanship in Gurney’s major scripts – such as The Dining Room, his breakthrough success of 1982, and the reader’s-theatre tragicomedy Love Letters – many have voiced reservations about insularity, coldness and even irrelevance in Gurney’s work, which may stem (it has been frequently suggested) from his preoccupation with the rarefied world in which he was raised.
Born in 1930, Albert Ramsdell Gurney Jr. is the son of a Buffalo real-estate executive. Since he began writing professionally in the late 1950s – and certainly since the early 1970s, when Scenes from American Life at Lincoln Center Theater Company stamped him as a writer to be reckoned with – his specialty has consistently been the shaky state of the uptight WASP elite in a changing America, the erosion of antiquated yet admirable values, the loss of the “civil” in civilization. To which more than a few critics have responded, “So what?”
Gurney is hardly unaware of this reaction. It both amused and bothered him to a sufficient degree that he made it an issue in The Cocktail Hour, whose playwriting protagonist John has a habit of drawing upon his affluent background for material. “He said we weren’t worth writing about,” John complains, citing one reviewer’s comment. “There you are,” his mother chimes in. “You see? Nobody cares about our way of life.”
In The Cocktail Hour, it develops that John has been skewering his family onstage because he craves their attention off it. The play’s happy ending only half-jokingly asserts that the reason people write for, and go to, the theatre is to seek reconciliation in their ruptured lives – and thus that even light comedy like Gurney’s carries meaning and validity when it connects with its audience. But in his far more inconclusive new works, Gurney seems to be questioning whether as an artist he is actually connecting with anyone at all.
The Fourth Wall is an absurdist twist on the kind of witty, well-made comedy The Cocktail Hour epitomizes. But what was vaguely theatrical” in The Cocktail Hour is insistently so in The Fourth Way, whose heroine, a well-off housewife named Peggy (played by Betty Buckley), has deliberately decorated the living room of her Manhattan apartment to face a blank wall – which is, of course, the fourth wall separating the stage from the audience. Her husband Roger (George Segal) – a genial, recently retired businessman – is confounded. He complains that the room makes him and anyone else who enters it act as if they’re in an old-fashioned play, with all its artifice and superficiality. “No wonder our children won’t visit us,” he sighs. “They hate the theatre unless we pay for it.” But Peggy wonders whether in fact they are in a play. “What if there were people beyond that wall?” she says. “And what if this audience were really democratic … poor people there, as well as rich? And what if they were ethnically diverse? What, for example, if there were a decent number of African Americans out there?” Her friend Julia (Jean De Baer), a sophisticated sexual predator with her eye on Roger, is cynical: “They’d hate this thing, Peggy. They’d rush right off to August Wilson.”
But the play that Peggy has set in motion begins to take on a life of its own, as Roger, Peggy and Julia begin behaving like characters in a Philip Barry comedy. Their dialogue becomes unabashedly expository, filled with witty quips and quotes from songs. The moral and metaphysical question soon arises: Just what is this play they’re in? Call it four characters in search of a plot. Eventually Peggy does indeed break through the fourth wall to greet the audience and head off for a new, uncertain life, with Roger chasing after her.
While The Fourth Wall ends with a woman rejecting theatrical artifice, Later Life begins with a woman embracing it. “I’m setting the stage,” says the hostess of a cocktail party to the play’s hero, a Boston banker named Austin (played last summer at Playwrights Horizons by Charles Kimbrough), as she brings him out onto the terrace of her apartment. (Later Life is currently running at Manhattan’s West-side Theatre, with Josef Sommer replacing Kimbrough.)
The woman’s intention is to reunite Austin with Ruth (Maureen Anderman), an old flame he had gently turned down 30 years ago despite their mutual attraction, saying he didn’t want to involve her in his life because of a deep-seated feeling that “something terrible” was destined to happen to him in later life. Something terrible did happen, it turns out: The something was nothing – nothing has engaged or affected him in the successful, emotionally dead existence for which he was bred. Ruth, on the other hand, has rushed in where Austin feared to tread. She’s on her fourth husband, an abusive Las Vegas gambler who both scares and excites her. Whose life is sadder – her sensation-seeking one, or his cautiously constricted one? Though he can barely admit it, Austin thinks it’s his – and that sense of failure is the most terrible thing of all.
On one level, the sparklingly witty The Fourth Wall and the darker, dryly poignant Later Life share a concern that arises frequently in Gurney’s work – the gulf between a cautious, eminently logical, emotionally repressed man and a vital, questing, possibly unstable but fascinating woman.
But both plays also seem to address directly another gulf – that between the artist and his audience. Gurney says he didn’t intend Peggy’s quest as an allegory for his own work. “I had certainly thought of the whole nature of theatre the potential of theatre to communicate with a group of people to express psychological thoughts and political thoughts,” he says. “But Peggy as an image of my own frustrations? I hadn’t thought of it that way.
“What has concerned me is the inability of the theatre to reach a larger audience these days. I’m not talking about the musical – things like Phantom and Miss Saigon. They’re more like the Ice Capades. But the serious plays speak to fewer and fewer and older and older people. I know my own children and most of their friends rarely go to the theatre.”
Gurney is stuck. He’s compelled to write for the theatre, yet he fears it’s an endangered form. “It’s artificial, it’s archaic, it’s restrictive beyond belief,” says the playwright John of his medium in The Cocktail Hour. While that comedy ends with improved communication among the characters, in Gurney’s new plays a terrible sense of doubt accompanies the need for human connection.
“In my more cynical or less ambitious moments, I feel that you may not be able to create that community in the audience. Yet the pleasures of putting on a play, of being able to work with a good director, good designers, good actors – that remains terribly exciting to me. Then if the audience becomes part of that transaction, that’s even more exciting.”