The late A.R. Gurney, the self-appointed chronicler of the last days of WASPdom, somehow managed to eke out a decades-long career based on the demise of this privileged class – largely due to the humor, melancholy and humanity he brought to his elegiac task. The Primary Stage’s production of three of his one-act plays – the titular Final Follies, The Rape of Bunny Stuntz and Love Course – cherry-picks from Gurney’s extensive oeuvre to offer up an eclectic and yet representative selection of his work.
The plays that comprise this evening all deal with presentations of what are undeniably first-world problems – but with a wry humor and self-awareness that lifts them above the merely maudlin. Ranging the length of Gurney’s career, the trio gives a hint of how his work developed as well as the themes that persisted over the decades. David Saint’s thoughtful, relaxed direction and understated, effective staging gives each work space and time to create its own world – and the result is immersive and engrossing.
In the first play, the last comedy Gurney penned, the genially self-deprecating but ne’er-do-well grandson of inherited wealth, Nelson (an appropriately likeable Colin Hanlon) is inconveniently unwilling to take an “allowance” from his grandfather (Greg Mullavey). After unsuccessful stints as a prep school teacher and a vice president at the family bank, and facing middle age, he decides to embark on an alternative career in the adult film industry. “Decides” is probably too strong a word. He peppers the studio’s elegant receptionist, Tanisha (a poised but pointed Rachel Nicks) with questions about the job. Surprisingly, he’s at last found something he can succeed at, though it’s much to the disapproval of his more staid but less charming brother (Mark Junek), who smugly arranges to show Grandpa one of Nelson’s films – to unexpected effect. The show is essentially two traditional plots woven together – the generational decay and disapproval on the one hand offset with an unlikely meet-cute romance as Nelson falls for Tanisha – both set against Nelson’s desire to sail off into the sunset and enjoy his class’s disintegration from a safe distance.
The second play, by way of contrast, was written in 1964 and features an undefined community meeting in which we, the audience, form the majority of the community. It’s led by the perfectly coiffed Bunny (an excellent Deborah Rush), whose steely cheer and velvet-gloved leadership are threatened when she can’t find the key to the box that, she repeatedly assures us, holds her notes and her agenda, without which the meeting simply cannot happen. Without it, as we see, the center cannot hold, much of her community flees to party in the basement, and a mysterious leather-jacketed gum-chewing stranger (or is he?) lurks in the shadows, taunting her with his claim that he has the missing key. Rush capably keeps her pointed prattle both light and sharp, all the while building to the play’s climax. Even though the Freudian trajectory feels dated, it’s still effective. Nonetheless, two supporting characters threaten to steal the show whenever they enter – Piter Marek as the increasingly grotesque handyman who brings up messages from the basement and Betsy Aidem as Bunny’s increasingly unwilling second-in-command.
Fortunately, in Love Course, the third play of the evening, we get to see this acting duo at the top of their game. In this 1969 comedy, Gurney’s muse is already waxing nostalgic, as two middle-aged professors, Burgess (Marek) and Carroway (Aidem), are teaching the last installment of their joint course on the literature of love. Hyperbolic and given to wild gestures, Carroway is convinced that the two of them are deeply in love. Harried and about to depart teaching for the less exciting world of academic administration, Burgess is trying to balance his new duties with her demands – and with his wife, waiting outside in the car for him. Haunted by the ghost (and speeches and imagery) of Antony and Cleopatra, the play is enjoyable, if slight, in its own right, but the exuberance of the two actors brings it an energy and excitement that raise it to a new, and often hilarious, level. Gurney himself taught literature at MIT, so he has a good eye for academic foibles. But in the end it’s Nelson who seems most like a stand-in for the playwright. Exposing himself to earn a living, he’s charming but always a little remote, focused on the sunset into which he’s hoping to sail off (in a well-appointed yawl, of course).