“You know what we’re really talking about here,” Nelson abruptly asks his interviewer, Tanisha, early on in A.R. Gurney’s short play Final Follies. “The waning of the WASP culture.” An amused Tanisha replies mockingly: “Oh really? Is that our subtext here?” Subtext does feel like a faraway concept at that moment. It’s all just text in Final Follies, the first of an evening of Gurney’s short plays currently presented by Primary Stages. All three shorts are indeed about “the waning of the WASP culture,” in some form – and while the plays are not exactly subtle, they do prove an intriguingly timed look at Gurney’s dark, distinctive voice.
Just a few years ago, Signature Theatre Company offered New York a new perspective on Gurney, staging two revivals and one world premiere in their 2014-15 season. That residency swept away any notion of Gurney as a dated voice, reminding us of his biting humor and startlingly bleak worldview. Yes, WASP culture is his frequent concern, but Gurney was alive to the world. He placed his wealthy protagonists in a social context which highlighted both their blinders and, often, their deep-seated unhappiness. Lila Neugebauer’s revival of The Wayside Motor Inn was particularly successful in drawing out the quiet desperation of Gurney’s characters.
As an evening, Final Follies seems less concerned with finding fresh perspective on Gurney’s work. To some extent that makes sense. Gurney died in June of last year, so it is a logical moment to simply place his words on stage, without great flourish or filtered through a modern lens. This approach makes for a perfectly enjoyable night: the ensemble is strong, the laughs are all there, and the pacing is snappy. Still, it’s hard to not feel that, in throwing these three plays on stage without much perspective, Primary Stages has ultimately done Gurney a disservice. His plays are not relics, but a little mining is needed to hit on how they can live and breathe today.
Of the three plays that make up the evening, two are more or less straight comedies. Final Follies, follows Nelson, a wayward and unemployed WASP who begins acting in porn. Soon his uptight brother Walter attempts to sabotage Nelson’s new career, and casting director Tanisha – who may have feelings for Nelson – is caught in the middle. Director David Saint here plays up the wacky humor of this play, particularly in a (very funny) scene where Nelson’s grandfather takes a liking to his adult work. It is all fun, but what’s lurking under Gurney’s humor feels mostly lost. Nelson and Tanisha are presented as romanticizing a decadent lifestyle just out of their reach. As long as that mindset lives on, Gurney reminds us, the supposedly “waning” WASP culture will likely never die.
The Love Course is the silliest of the three plays, and the evening’s least successful. At the final class of an undergraduate literature course, two eccentric professors confront their possible love for one another. Events rapidly escalate as literary references pile up, and one of their students takes sides. Saint’s wacky tone feels slightly more appropriate here, though the performances are broad even past the point of caricature. Still, it’s hard not to wonder what a more restrained approach might have brought out. Betsy Aidem’s Professor Carroway is a particularly sad character – a lonely academic obsessed with literary notions of love, but useless at any real life practice. That’s as funny as it is deeply sad, but Saint sticks with just the ‘funny.’
The production is most successful in its handling of The Rape of Bunny Stuntz, the best play of the evening. Saint’s approach of papering over the darkness with laughs proves more appropriate to this work, about a high-strung suburban wife, newly elected head of a local community board. As Bunny attempts to lead her first meeting, she is menaced by an unseen male figure taunting her from just off-stage. Bunny is all smiles even as the threat of this figure grows more evident. The theme of male violence as an ever-present threat makes Bunny Stuntz particularly timely.
Bunny Stuntz is also a reminder, much more than the other two works, of Gurney’s skill as a dramatist. In casting the audience as Bunny’s neighbors and then keeping us passive, Gurney suggests the self-concern of WASP communities; while the danger lurking unseen also rings true to wealthier, seemingly “safe” communities which in fact hide great violence. Though not as subtle as Gurney’s work would later become, Bunny Stuntz is nonetheless a layered and scary play.
Its timeliness is also, at one point, even harder to miss. When facing an accusation of impropriety, Bunny goes to a now familiar alibi. “Would he like to see my engagement calendar?” she queries, to knowing chuckles from the audience. “It has everything I’ve done!” So much for the waning of WASP culture.