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Can Gurney and Simpson Save Civilization

Maybe not, but for the playwright/director team, putting politics on stage is a start

An interview by Laura Collins-Hughes

Five years ago this month, when arts organizations in post-9/11 Lower Manhattan were desperate to draw people downtown, the tiny Flea Theater in Tribeca began previews of a play that would become, simultaneously, a star-studded monster hit and a salve for a wounded city. Over the following year, more than 12,000 people filed through the Flea's doors to see The Guys, Anne Nelson's theatrical response to the terrorist attacks. One of those people, lured by his actor friend Swoosie Kurtz, was playwright A.R. Gurney.

By the time Gurney saw the production, directed by Flea artistic director Jim Simpson, Kurtz had taken over the role created by Sigourney Weaver, who is Simpson's wife. The play, a two-hander about a New York fire captain and the journalist who helps him to write eulogies for his fallen men, impressed Gurney, as did the simple direction, the feel of the 80-seat Off-Off Broadway house and even the hip and gritty neighborhood.

For decades, Gurney's chronicles and criticisms of his native WASP culture—among them Love Letters, The Dining Room and Ancestral Voices—have been staples of the American stage, from Broadway to community theatre. This season, as usual, his work is being produced all over the country: The Fourth Wall was at the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre in August, just as Indian Blood premiered at New York's Primary Stages; Sylvia ran in October at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis; and New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre will stage The Cocktail Hour in January. Last month, a reading of O Jerusalem, directed by Simpson, was part of the Arab/Israeli Festival at New York City's Public Theater.

The Flea, where Karen Finley, Len Jenkin and Elizabeth Swados have done some of their experimental work, might seem an odd fit for Gurney, who is so ultra-establishment that The Cambridge Guide to Theatre describes him as "the American theatre's John Cheever." But in the past four years, as much of his writing has veered into the political sphere, he has returned to the Flea again and again, each time with a new play under Simpson's direction. Like his other work, these plays are often to some degree about the text, about academia, about the theatre; sometimes they're also set in Gurney's traditional WASP milieu. Always palpable, however, are the playwright's liberal disgust with the government and his alarm at the direction the nation has taken.

Simpson's collaboration with Gurney (known to friends as Pete) began in spring 2003 with O Jerusalem, about a State Department official in love with a woman whose son belongs to Hamas. In 2004, the play was Mrs. Farnsworth, about a middle-aged woman (played by Weaver) determined to write a damaging memoir of her undergraduate affair with a reckless Yalie who became president. Screen Play, a darkly comic riff on Casablanca set in a nightmare vision of a future America, followed in 2005.

The duo will take a break from the blatantly political when they premiere Gurney's more traditional-feeling comedy, Crazy Mary, starring Weaver, this May at Playwrights Horizons. But their current project, which began performances in October at the Flea and runs through Dec. 9, has the Bush Administration very much on its mind. In Post Mortem, Gurney himself is a character, albeit a dead one. A self-mockingly self-referential in-joke set "sometime in the future," it revolves around a lost Gurney script that may or may not have been dangerous enough to get the playwright killed by the government. Discovered by a student at a faith-based public university, the play manages to save the world.

Gurney, 76, and Simpson, 50, sat down at the Flea with this writer to talk about collaboration, politics and the civilizing influence of the theatre.

LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES: In Post Mortem, the character Dexter says that A.R. Gurney got "hung up" on politics "in his later years."
GURNEY: In his "later," or did I say "declining," years? (Laughter.)

No, you said "later." So where did that political interest come from in your work, suddenly?
GURNEY: Well, it came from what was happening in the world around us. I've always been a Democrat....

And you've been taking shots at Republicans in your plays for years.
GURNEY: For years. But, uh, side glances.

GURNEY: Gently, yeah. I felt, began to feel in, say, 2001, around there, that our country was being thoroughly mishandled and misappropriated, so I wanted to write about it.

This was pre-9/11, or post?
GURNEY: I think mostly post-9/11. I mean, the whole Florida vote-count thing got to me. But I'm not sure exactly when my energies began to turn in that direction.

Did you feel like you needed to find a different place, a different audience, for this new kind of work that you were doing?
GURNEY: There was a little of that. I mean, for instance, just the economics of the thing. Fifteen, twenty, thirty bucks for a ticket is different than sixty, seventy, eighty bucks for a ticket. The audiences uptown tend to be my age, or in some cases even older. And I had an instinct, or a yearning—a yearning—to speak to a younger audience, which you get here. On the other hand, it's a very nice place to go to the theatre, and there are very nice restaurants around, so all the older people show up here, too. (To Simpson) Right?
SIMPSON: They do.

In your 1998 play at Manhattan Theatre Club, Labor Day, you created a fictional, very unhealthy playwright-director relationship, in which the director was determined to take away one of the things that was most fundamentally important to the playwright, who was a guy much like you. I wonder, how do you communicate with each other? What's a boundary that you can't cross?
GURNEY: I've been involved in the theatre in one way or another for a very long time, so you learn. I mean, we had a run-through the other day, and I had already rewritten a scene once and we'd gone over it sitting around the table and now they were acting it. I saw it in context with the scenes around it and I decided it had to be fixed—Jim didn't run up to me or try to be tactful and say, "Uh, that's gotta go." I could tell immediately. I said to Jim, "I'm gonna do that again." I didn't tell him exactly what I was going to do; I said, "We're too long—it doesn't work." And I don't think I could've done that 10 years ago. Jim would've had to tell me. I would've been too lost in what I had written.
SIMPSON: It is experience. Because particularly in his rewrites, it doesn't feel like "Uh! There's a bump."
GURNEY: I have plenty of bumps in my plays—I promise you that.
SIMPSON: It's always easier said than done. I started working with Lloyd Richards originally, with new plays.

You were at the Yale Drama School when he was the dean?
SIMPSON: Yes. I was there for one year of [Robert] Brustein and the next two with Lloyd. It was interesting. A real seismic shift in the way the school was run. Lloyd's feeling was always: I don't want to hear much from the director. What I really want to hear from the director is: How are you realizing that play? Not what rewrites you're asking the playwright to jump into, but are you chasing what's on the page? Are you going after that and trying to realize that in a way that might surprise or provoke the writer into sharpening his or her vision?

How late do you do rewrites?
GURNEY: There are different kinds of rewrites. Right now, with this play, I think we've got the general shape pretty much the way we want it, but we might be a little too long. Now we can do two things. We can put in an intermission, or we can cut. I think anything over 90 minutes without an intermission is very dangerous, so….
SIMPSON: I say 80. (Laughter.)
GURNEY: You may be right! So the second phase of rewriting is cutting, and that's harder in some senses because sometimes good stuff has got to go. You've got to be very careful.
SIMPSON: But luckily, at that point usually, if you've got intelligent actors (and 99 percent of them are), they're going to say, "Wait a second. If you cut that, the line about the sweater, why am I wearing it? I have a whole speech about it later, and I need the set-up." So there are other people who are going to alert us to it.

What makes good political theatre?
SIMPSON: The neat thing about Post Mortem is it's very much about the notion of political theatre. Period. In a big way, I enjoy how Pete sets it up as something to look at with humor. You know, the second act of this play has solved all the world's problems, all the way to convenient public transportation—it's very amusing. Maybe the layperson's notion of political theatre is that it's issue-based—that a play about convenient public transportation would be a very important play, and it would be. But I will bet you as soon as you get convenient public transportation, that play's going to be dated. Issue-based political theatre, more often than not, doesn't go past that. I think Pete's point in the play is actually that we're supposed to have bigger fish to fry.

But I also think that everything you do is political—everything has political import. It's there, so you can't avoid it. When you trumpet yourself as "I do political theatre," for most people that's just saying, "Please don't attend my theatre." But actually, being current, being responsive to the world we're living in, is simply good theatre. To pretend in the theatre that what's going on in the world right now—what's going on in Washington, what's going on in New York—has nothing to do with what we're actually asking people to come together for, listen to and enjoy, is rotten theatre. It's just smart to be reflecting, like Shakespeare said—to hold this mirror up to nature, (to Gurney) or something like that?
GURNEY: Uh-huh.
SIMPSON: That's just good business sense, good theatre sense. When I go to the theatre, I don't want to close the rest of the world outside. I'm thrilled when it comes in—because if you can bring the real world inside the theatre, if you can pull that off, wow, it's going to be an interesting evening.

Have you had to make changes, in any of the four plays that you've done together, because something was no longer fiction, it was suddenly reality, not some comic-horror fantasy?
SIMPSON: There was some dumb pressure from people on the first play, O Jerusalem, who felt that the whole idea of the son [being in] Hamas—that you expected the audience to feel some compassion for this woman and her child—meant you're having "compassion for terrorists," and that sort of nonsense. So you're going to get idiot phone calls and e-mails from people who feel very strongly about this and also feel that a free exchange of ideas on the subject can be dangerous. I don't agree with that. It's dangerous to go on the other path.

But the whole premise of Post Mortem is that theatre can be dangerous—and that theatre can change the world. Which seems absurd, but then suddenly you have an opera [Mozart's Idomeneo, at the Deutsche Oper] canceled in Berlin because its content is somehow threatening.
GURNEY:Yes, but whether that opera would've changed the world had it gone on is another question. The bottom line is, I simply don't agree with that kind of censorship. Playwrights have always written some kind of political theatre. There's a lot of political theatre in Shakespeare. Aristophanes is nothing but, you know? It's a very tricky form. I mean, take, say, MacBird, a play in the '60s that implied LBJ had assassinated Kennedy. That I don't think has lasted. But the musical Hair, which was very much a protest musical when it first opened, still has, in my opinion, strong validity as a vision of a world, as a vision of peace.

Is there validity, though, to the notion of theatre as a dangerous thing?
SIMPSON: Sure. Oh, yeah. It can be transgressive in a second. You get people in a room, it's easy to be dangerous, and it's very hard to control that feeling. But I wish the theatre were even more dangerous. I think we would have no problems getting people to buy tickets if it had more of a sense of danger. Theatre happens in real time, with real people, and anything can happen. Unlike most entertainment in America and throughout the world, we're not run by the corporations. So the possibility, the potential in theatre, is always there. And, man, you don't have to spend anything to do it. It is just the boards and the passion. That is really all you need.
GURNEY: I remember my wife and I came into New York to see Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? just at the end of the Eisenhower age. We came from the cozy suburbs, sat there, saw this play about a married relationship which was appallingly rich and strong and dangerous—it really blew us away. So it doesn't always have to be political—it can amount to raising the curtain on something that society hasn't really considered and asking the audience at least to look at it, to consider it.

One of the fundamental questions in your plays Crazy Mary and Later Life is whether people can change in later life. What do you think?
GURNEY: I think we're always capable of change. As you get older, it's hard, and you've got more baggage to throw out the window, or whatever metaphor you want to use. It's interesting that you feel that about Crazy Mary, because Crazy Mary is a play with a plot, and I haven't worked with plot that much. The plot fascinated me—the set-up, the situation, the plot, the turns. And then I said, "Now, what the hell is this about?" (Laughter.)

We may always be capable of change, but that doesn't mean we do change.
GURNEY: That's right. Also, when we write a play, we get this impulse that maybe the play in some small way will change the world, will change everybody in the audience. The theatre, I think, is the best medium in which to approach the idea of changing, of throwing away your old assumptions and moving on, because it's all about playing a part—it's all about acting, all about masks and to what degree can you throw away the mask, right? To what degree are you dependent on the mask—is the mask frozen to your face, or can you throw it away?

In terms of this shift in your writing, do the new political plays have a life outside the Flea? Or do people want more of the stuff that you've been writing for years? You know, like a rock star who's only allowed to play the hits.
GURNEY: It is true that a play in America normally has some kind of a life first in the resident or regional theatres, and you hope for that. After that, you hope for some foreign productions, too. It's always gratifying when you get that. Now with my plays for the Flea, none of them has yet had any significant productions elsewhere—none. I mean, there's an occasional college [that] will do that kind of play, but the political thrust for the regional theatres is very tricky, because most of them are run by boards or answer to boards that tend to be conservative politically, and so they have to be very careful. I think that's the reason.

Does this surprise you?
SIMPSON: No. There was a point after graduate school when I did a lot of work in regional theatre, went all over the country, did all that stuff. Board-based theatres, because they're wealthy, do tend to be conservative.

But they're subscriber-based, so they're allegedly able to take risks.
SIMPSON: They are subscriber-based, to a point. But no, even with subscribers, you have a clientele that you have a relationship with, whereas I don't have subscribers here, so I'm not bound to please an audience that I have a partnership with. Yet on the other hand, these subscriber-based theatres do an awful lot of good work. And as Pete points out in Post Mortem, the work of Tennessee Williams, for example, who everyone thinks about as a real old-school playwright, seems fairly safe, but guess what? He's not. He's very transgressive always—very funny, always political, with his very informed, peculiar point of view. And those guys do those plays. They're just not always aware, I think (laughs), of the dynamite they're playing with—maybe.

Right now we're really experiencing a polarity in our culture, and I think people feel very uncomfortable if they go to a place that's supposedly social and fun and they're asked to think about politics. How many times have I been in a room and suddenly realized, "Yikes! You're on that side? How can you be an informed, caring, intelligent person and espouse that point of view?" And you want to start shouting. Unfortunately, that's where we're at right now. So these guys aren't going to do a play that is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause—O Jerusalem—or Mrs. Farnsworth, where grave misgivings about our current president are expressed, or the black-comic vision in Screen Play about where our country is actually headed. That's why it's wonderful to be running a small theatre in New York without subscribers. Off-Off Broadway, that's part of our mandate, to be doing this sort of work.

Mr. Gurney, does the privileged world that you come out of and that your plays are set in—the world of the ruling class, really—make your plays inherently well suited to examining the current administration and the effect that it has on the nation and the world? I wonder this because it seems to me that, although you are of different generations, you and Bush were raised from the same rulebook.
GURNEY: Very much so, very much so.

So you know the rules. You know which ones he's broken.
GURNEY: Yeah. And that angers me particularly. It seems to me that our president was brought up within a culture that had many bad parts but had certain fundamental obligations. And he's broken all those rules, starting with his grammar. You know? (Laughter.) So I feel personally terribly angry. If we can use the word WASP rather than "privilege," I think most WASPs feel the same way. Within the so-called privileged world you're talking about, Europe was very much a mentor—you weren't really educated unless you went to Europe and you read a lot of English literature. [The attitude was] that we were still the sort of crude country cousins to a much stronger culture, and the best we can do is try to consult, to emulate, to save, as in World War I and II. And so this kind of preemptive strike [against Iraq] and the dismissal of the U.N., behavior like that, is just appalling to us. The president's father, for all his problems, still belonged to that culture and behaved. And his grandfather (although the grandfather himself had some problems). But at least they gave a general impression of the tradition that they came from and followed most of those rules.

What role does storytelling in the theatre have in keeping civilization healthy and in keeping people aware?
SIMPSON: It's a basic idea. If you're willing to listen to a story, you're endowing the speaker with the position of authority—and in taking on the role of a listener, you're creating a social contract between the two of you. I think at one point Post Mortem is talking about that basic civility of saying, "You tell me something that I might want to hear," [which] is a basic building block of how we interact with each other—and a good way to interact, instead of two people in a room with their fingers in their ears, going, "La la la la la la la la la, I don't want to listen to you," or I have my iPod, or I'm on my cell phone. The idea of storytelling also is saying: Do we have something—some knowledge, some experience, some information, something to delight in—that's worth imparting and worth maybe you sitting down and listening to? To enjoy theatre, you actually have to be habituated to human behavior—to enjoy it and experience it. It is a mark of a civilized society. All the best civilized societies had a pretty refined form of it.
GURNEY: I second very much what Jim just said. It's a very civilizing and civilized endeavor, and I'm in love with it.

Laura Collins-Hughes is a theatre writer in New York.