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A Weightier A.R. Gurney

A Light Lunch introduces Buffalo to the political playwright

The enticement in the publicity for the Road Less Traveled production of A.R Gurney’s A Light Lunch—“You may think you know Gurney, but you’ve never seen Gurney like this!”—is entirely true for much of the Buffalo audience.

While Gurney, author of plays like The Dining Room, Sylvia, and The Cocktail Hour, is the playwright most closely associated with our city, he is far less present in our theatrical landscape than you might expect.

That is not to say that Gurney is entirely unknown to us or that he is not beloved among Buffalonians. We both know and love him for plays like those mentioned above, and for others like Indian Blood, Buffalo Gal, Crazy Mary, What I Did Last Summer, Far East, Later Life, The Snow Ball, Children, The Fourth Wall, The Middle Ages, Sweet Sue, Scenes from American Life, and for numerous outings of Love Letters. Many of these plays are set in Buffalo or make reference to our city, and have been performed at such theaters as the old Studio Arena, the Kavinoky, and a litany of community theaters.

Still, no Gurney play has had its world premiere in Buffalo since 1970, when Neal Du Brock headed Studio Arena Theatre. Du Brock’s successor, David Frank, had an active aversion to Gurney; and while Frank’s successor, Gavin Cameron-Webb, did produce a number of Gurney’s plays, during his administration Studio Arena blocked other theaters from doing so. The result is that Buffalo’s vision of Gurney is highly curtailed. We know the patrician and sharp-witted chronicler of WASP culture who has a talent for toying with theatrical conventions. But we do not know the more political Gurney who can skewer contemporary conventional wisdom with all the elegance and accuracy of Voltaire.

In an August 2008 article, I lamented that in its last two decades, Studio Arena Theatre actively prevented contemporary plays from ever being seen in Buffalo by blocking rights but never producing the scripts. This practice was not limited to Gurney’s work.

“Over the years, the Buffalo audience became disconnected from the larger theater world and ignorant of what was happening in the contemporary theater,” I wrote. “At a time when the American theater was becoming more daring, more diverse, more political, and more edgy, Studio Arena Theatre was becoming more conservative, cautious, and frivolous. As a consequence, Buffalo may be an active theater town, but it’s not an especially knowledgeable theater town.”

As this pertained to Gurney, I observed, “Buffalo has entirely ignored [the] edgy, political, youth-oriented scripts that have been playing at the Flea Theatre in New York. Buffalo claims to adore Pete Gurney, but dramaturgically we barely know him. We’ve never seen any of the political work: not Mrs. Farnsworth, or Post Mortem, or even Screen Play, which is set in a futuristic Buffalo. Each script is playful, surprisingly subversive, and wonderfully theatrical in that very Gurney way.”

With this production of A Light Lunch, that begins to change. Halleluiah!

Buffalo is about to see just how weary the economic and foreign policies of George W. Bush made Gurney. A Light Lunch is, like the plays mentioned above, a political script written specifically for “the Bats,” the young company at the Flea.

Best of all, RLTP promises that this is just the first of three Gurney plays to come. Gurney is tremendously prolific, and in addition to these newer plays, Buffalo has yet to see Ancestral Voices, which has references to numerous Buffalo locations including the Garrett Club; Big Bill, about a homosexual scandal in the life of tennis legend Bill Tilden; The Old Boy, like Big Bill, another of Gurney’s plays about antiquated notions of homosexuality; or A Cheever Evening, a celebration of that other chronicler of WASP culture, which makes no mention of Cheever’s homosexuality. There are numerous shorter works, like Darlene and The Guest Lecturer, that take us outside the usual Gurney landscape, as well.

A Light Lunch premiered during that heady but anxious bubble after Bush had been voted out but before Obama had taken office. In this play, a lawyer from Texas meets the agent for a playwright named Gurney in order to option his newest play. Her objective? To keep the play from ever being seen.

The light-hearted plays that Gurney has written for the Flea are amusing caprices, short in length and long on wit and theatrical invention. Mrs. Farnsworth tells the story of a woman taking a creative writing class whose project turns out to be a tell-all book about a scandal involving an affair with George W. Bush when she was in college; the original production starred Sigourney Weaver, who had previously starred as a Buffalo socialite in Gurney’s Crazy Mary, and Buffalo’s favorite theatrical in-law, John Lithgow, whose talented look-alike son, Ian, makes Buffalo his home. Screen Play is a parody of Casablanca, set in a futuristic Buffalo, New York, where political discontents await their chance to cross the border into Canada. Post Mortem is another futuristic play; this time a graduate student is working on a thesis about a little known late 20th-century playwright named A.R. Gurney.

That RLTP has chosen to produce the last in the series, A Light Lunch, is a particular treat for me, for while I saw and adored the Flea productions of Mrs. Farnsworth, Post Mortem, and Screen Play, I did not see A Light Lunch.

In this play, expect self-deprecating jokes from Gurney, and numerous references to the theater itself. In addition, while Gurney is certain to hurl an onslaught of good-natured barbs at the former US president, he always writes with a great deal of compassion as well. A Light Lunch has been directed by Scott Behrend and will feature actors David Hayes, Lisa Vitrano, Jessica Wegrzyn, and Matt Witten.

In the meanwhile, Gurney continues to write. For his newest play, The Grand Manner, which will open at Lincoln Center this spring, he again taps into his three most famous obsessions: Buffalo, his civilized WASP upbringing, and the theater itself. In The Grand Manner, he dramatizes a story from his life that he has often told before, of going backstage to meet the great Katharine Cornell after a performance of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra in 1948—a meeting arranged by Gurney’s grandmother when he was a teenager and Cornell was in her 50s. Once again, Buffalo features prominently, for Cornell, too, hailed from this city. The play is a combination of reminiscence and imagination, and director Mark Lamos reveals that this wistful backstage visit is tinged with sadness, for in Gurney’s representation, the First Lady of the American Theatre clearly senses that she and the world she has known are becoming relics of the past.

Primary Stages in New York will debut another new Gurney comedy next year, Black Tie, (also to be directed by Lamos) in which “Curtis,” the father of the groom, simply wants to make a memorable toast, but “before he is able to raise his glass, he must defend the time-honored ways of his past, including his attire. Cultures clash when a surprise guest is announced, threatening to throw convention out the window. Curtis finds that balancing the standards of his late father and the needs of his future family may prove too messy for a black tie affair.”

While The Grand Manner and Black Tie sound like the Gurney who is very familiar to Buffalo, political critique is always a part of a Gurney play—at least at the edges. With A Light Lunch, it takes central focus.

A Light Lunch will be performed at the Road Less Traveled Theater, 639 Main Street. Call (800) 745-3000 for tickets and further information.