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Buffalo Guy

A.R. Gurney discusses the New York premiere of Buffalo Gal, his belief in political theater, and what he really thinks of the term WASP. logo
A.R. Gurney
(© James Leynse)
Just call him Pete. It's what everyone calls A.R. Gurney, despite the very literary sounding name -- Albert Ramsdell Gurney, Jr. -- on a resume that includes Williams College, the Yale School of Drama, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And it just wouldn't be a New York theater season without a "Pete" Gurney work. Luckily, the prolific playwright's Buffalo Gal has recently arrived at Primary Stages, in a production directed by Mark Lamos and starring Susan Sullivan as an actress torn between theater and Hollywood, and there could be another show or two on the way.

THEATERMANIA: Buffalo Gal is set in your hometown, as are so many of your plays. If you were from somewhere else, do you think they would be set in Buffalo?
A.R. GURNEY: I don't know. Buffalo is this wonderful mixture of a city and a small town. There's a lot of ethnic diversity, and a strong appreciation for the arts. There's also a sense of what it was.

TM: You've already had this play done in Buffalo in 2002, with Betty Buckley in the lead. What do you remember most about that production?
A.R.G.: Betty was great. But did you hear about our opening night? The light board went out right before the show, and we had to do it with work lights.

TM: It's taken six years for the play to get to New York. Why?
A.R.G.: At the time, the producer who I thought might move it to New York came to me and said it wasn't really his cup of tea. And I was busy working on other plays -- some of the political ones like Mrs. Farnsworth -- so I let it go for a bit. I only found out very recently that it had received a bad review in Variety, which is probably part of the reason why it didn't come in back then.

TM: You didn't know about the review at the time?
A.R.G.: No. The other day in rehearsal Mark finally told me about it. I've re-worked the play some since then. A lot of people weren't happy with the ending -- it was too ambiguous -- so I've re-written it about 12 times. I think we've finally hit upon something that works.

James Waterston, Jennifer Regan, Carmen R. Herlihy,
Dathan R. Williams, Susan Sullivan, and Mark Blum
in Buffalo Gal
(© James Leynse)
TM: The play is about an erstwhile television star who comes back to the stage -- and back to Buffalo -- only to perhaps be wooed away again. Are you not a fan of television?
A.R.G.: I don't have a problem with television. And I understand why people go out to Los Angeles. I have a lot of friends out there. And I've had a few of my plays turned into movies of the week. But it's not for me.

TM: You're very lucky in that you seem to have many theatrical homes at the moment. You have overtly political works that run downtown at The Flea, but also plays that are more about family and memory that seem to play uptown at places like Primary Stages and MTC. Do you feel like there are two distinct threads in your work?
A.R.G.: I do. The plays I've done at The Flea are deliberately political. I'd seen The Guys down there after 9/11 and one other play that Jim Simpson directed there, so I sent him this first political play, O Jerusalem, that I had written because I thought he'd be the right person to direct it. Plus, The Flea tends to attract younger audiences, and I've wanted that for these plays. I just sent another one to Jim, which I'm hoping he'll do.

T.M.: You lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1960s and you didn't get around to writing a political play until this decade? What took you so long?
A.R.G.: I know. I was busy. I had young kids and I was teaching literature at MIT. I was something of a curiosity there. Long after I had moved to New York and was no longer planning to teach there, they kept my courses on the books, because I think it looked good to have something different. But the students were great and obviously very bright, and there were even one or two that went into theater like James Woods.

TM: Going back further, you were a student at Williams College at around the same time as Stephen Sondheim. Did you know him?
A.R.G.: He was one year older than me, but two years ahead of me. That's how much smarter he was. I certainly knew who he was. At the time, college shows were very broad, all-male, musical revues, and he wrote real songs and brought in real girls to play the girls. When he graduated, I sort of took over and continued what he had been doing.

TM: When you read about one of your plays, the term that always seems to get thrown about is WASP. What do you think about that?
A.R.G.: [Laughs] I don't really like it. I think it's reductive. Neil Simon writes about a particular group of people -- upper-middle class, successful Jews -- but people don't start a review of his work with "it's a bunch of Jews." And I don't use the word WASP about others or myself, except maybe in a funny way.

TM: When did you first hear the term?
A.R.G.: I think it was about 1970 from a guy at the University of Pennsylvania, Digby Baltzell, who tried to speak in a very serious way about the values that had come down from Washington and Jefferson. Later on, I was on a panel with him and he made it clear that he thought I was a traitor to my class. And I was just a guy trying to talk about a play I had written.

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