Monday, August 11, 2008

Shuffle Back to Buffalo

A.R. Gurney Interview

Playwright A.R. Gurney (photo: James Leynse)
A.R. Gurney—whose latest offering, the Primary Stages production of Buffalo Gal, runs at 59 E 59 Stages through September 13—has been a mainstay on New York stages for nearly 30 years, since The Dining Room had a successful off-Broadway run in the early 1980s. Since then, plays like The Cocktail Hour, Love Letters, Sylvia, Ancestral Voices, and Big Bill have solidified his reputation as one of our foremost chronicles of contemporary American life.

Born in Buffalo, Gurney has often poured autobiographical details into his plays. Lately, it has become more prominent: 2006’s Indian Blood (also at Primary Stages) was a paean to growing up in a more well-to-do Buffalo during the 1940s, and Buffalo Gal comically despairs over the decline of both what was once a large, growing city and its theatrical tradition.

Gurney discussed Buffalo Gal, Buffalo, and President Bush in a telephone conversation from his Connecticut home.

Kevin Filipski: More so than your other plays, Buffalo Gal is a lament for the decline of Buffalo as an important city and cultural center.

A.R. Gurney: It’s too bad, really, because when I was growing up Buffalo was a very lively and exciting city. Other cities which have some of the same problems, like Pittsburgh and Detroit–these other Midwestern cities that have primarily relied on one or two industries–seem to have picked themselves up to a certain extent, but Buffalo has never done so, unfortunately.

KF: Were you surprised that most of the local reviewers ignored your theme about Buffalo? Also, how did you decide to tackle this theme of decline, which is a sore spot for the people who still live in Buffalo?

Gurney: It’s interesting, because I do talk about it right in the play, throughout–“a fading city, a fading world, a fading me!” is what Amanda says. Again, it’s too bad because I love the city, and writing about it was great for me. As for the play’s genesis, I find it awfully hard to retrace my steps when I write something, to remember what exactly was going on at the time–but it seemed like a natural connection to me. I liked Buffalo’s Studio Arena Theater very much–I always thought that it has one of the best theater spaces in the entire country, which is odd because that theater was originally a burlesque house! I had also wanted to write a play about coming home, about the feelings one has after having some success once you leave. That also seemed like another obvious connection to me–along with getting the fading actress to play the part in The Cherry Orchard. So, it all seemed to fit together naturally.

KF: When Buffalo Gal was performed in Buffalo—at the Studio Arena Theater, of course—Betty Buckley played Amanda. Her sense of the theatrical seems perfect for the role—was there any thought to having her reprise Amanda for the current off-Broadway run?

Gurney: The original director of the Buffalo production, John Tillinger, couldn’t do it for various reasons–and, since I’ve been working recently on several projects like Mark Lamos, I offered it to him, and after reading it he said yes. But when you give a play to a new director, he likes to paint it in his own colors. Betty Buckley was excellent, of course–we built up the song in the play so Betty could sing it, because she sings so beautifully–whereas in the new production, Susan Sullivan avoids singing it, if you notice. (He laughs.) Mark also wanted to work with a new cast for this production.

KF: You’re 77 now, and you left Buffalo over a half-century ago to attend the Yale School of Drama. Do you still have ties there?

Gurney: Of course! My sister still lives in Buffalo, my mother lived there until she died about four years ago, and my wife’s sister is still there–and, to top it off, both my wife and I grew up there. So we do go back there to visit ofetn: I have to say that, even if we didn’t have so many family and friends in Buffalo, we’d still go back, because it’s simply an awfully nice place to visit. There’s really a lot to do there–it’s wonderful in the summer at the cottages along Lake Erie, and going to Niagara on the Lake for the Shaw Festival is also terrific. It’s a very congenial, pleasant area to be in.

KF: On a more somber note, you’ve written several political plays in the past few years that have been very critical of the Bush administration: Mrs. Farnsworth, Post Mortem, O Jerusalem and Screen Play, all of which premiered downtown at the Flea Theater, and which are far from your usual portraits of affluent WASPs (which is used as shorthand to describe your plays). Do you have more to say on this subject, even while Bush’s time in office is winding down?

Gurney: Yes, I do have a lot more to say about both him and his administration and what they’ve done to this country. I can’t say more right now, because it’s still in the works, but I do think that we’ll be doing it again at the Flea. I have managed to separate my political anger and anguish from my more “normal” work, if you like. People like to pigeonhole you, and I guess you can’t avoid it: I’ve never been happy about the whole “WASP” term to describe my plays, but it’s just as good a description as any other, I guess.

Originally posted on

No comments: