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Playwright Gurney In Middle Age

January 14, 1985|ERNEST SCHIER

NEW YORK — Suicide in Buffalo is redundant .

--from "A Chorus Line" Playwright A. R. (for Albert Ramsdell) Gurney Jr. took the hint, shook the snow of Buffalo's arctic winters from his boots and headed for places of livelier, if not warmer, opportunity.

The author of "The Middle Ages," opening Friday at the L.A. Public Theatre, landed first at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to teach English. Now, 25 years later and at the apex of his play-writing life, he has established himself in New York City, where he can take the subway when the snow flies.

Gurney is a slender, graying man of 53 whose understated manner suggests the country lawyer. His passions for theater and play writing developed simultaneously and early.

"For some strange reason there was a lot of theater in Buffalo when I was young," he recalls. "I used to go to the Erlanger, which has long since been torn down, and see the road company of 'Blossom Time' or the Lunts, or Katherine Cornell, or 'A Streetcar Named Desire.' All those things came through."

At the same time, Gurney was learning about writing.

"I always went to schools where we had to write a composition at least every week. All my life I've been in the habit of having to sit down and write something."

That early exposure to theater and writing contributed strongly to Gurney's three-way career as teacher, novelist and playwright. He is a prolific writer, author of three novels, eight full-length plays and many one-acts.

"To be a playwright was, to me, one of the ultimate ambitions," Gurney says. "I don't think young writers today think of the theater--they hope to write TV shows and movies and books; the theater is too demanding."

Gurney's plays are drawn from his family life and from his many years at MIT.

In "The Dining Room," his most popular play to date, a matriarch rises from her own Thanksgiving table to announce that it's time for her to go home. A strikingly similar exit was made from the Gurney family table.

In "The Middle Ages" (seen last fall at the Westwood Playhouse), there is a marriage between widowed parents of a pair of young lovers, which may reflect the origins of the marriage between the playwright's widowed mother and his wife's father.

"Is play writing the toughest form? I think it is tough for those who are not happy under its restrictions. Some of us need those rules. Great playwrights--Shakespeare, Ibsen--redefined the rules under which other playwrights then played," he says.

"What fascinates me is the constant clash between how we were and how we are--between the world we were brought up in and the world we have to live in."

He agrees that most contemporary playwrights, and he includes himself, tend to write about the same basic concern over and over again.

"I feel I've played out my particular concern. There is nothing more boring for the writer--as well as for the audience--than to see the same subject dealt with in the same way once again. Part of being a writer is to challenge oneself."

Although "The Dining Room" has played in London, Paris and in Japan, Holland and South Africa, which is understandably gratifying to Gurney, he would like to have a play on Broadway. At the same time, he is aware that he doesn't write for the Broadway theater.

"I don't write star plays; I write ensemble plays."

Gurney will continue his long-term association with MIT, carrying half a load next semester, teaching play writing and commuting between his Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan and the Cambridge classroom.

"I'm always writing in my head, so the commute won't bother me. I can also get rid of a lot of the junk in my head that way, so that when I sit down to write, I'm closer to finding out what my subject is going to be."

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