Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A Creative Escape: An Interview with A.R. Gurney and Mark Lamos

By Nathaniel French
Courtesy Signature Theatre Company

Mark Lamos & A. R. Gurney. Photo by Peter Chenot.
Over the course of more than forty plays, Residency One playwright A.R. (Pete) Gurney has established himself as America’s leading chronicler of the manners and traditions of New England’s WASP establishment. Now, he returns to Signature with the final play of his residency, the World Premiere of Love and Money. Longtime Gurney collaborator Mark Lamos directs this incisive comedy, in which the wealthy widow Cornelia attempts to say goodbye to WASP culture by donating her vast estate to charity. Along the way, an unexpected visitor arrives, spurring her to imagine the legacy—and the family—she’d like to leave behind.

Signature is thrilled to partner with the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut—where Lamos is the Artistic Director—for this co-production: the play will run for three weeks in Westport before arriving at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

Earlier this summer, Gurney and Lamos sat down with Signature Literary Associate Nathaniel French to discuss their years of collaboration, theatre as escape, and finding value in rarely-produced work.

Sig: This is your seventh time working together. Mark, what do you find so enduring about Pete's work?

A. R. Gurney's The Dining Room, directed by Mark Lamos.
Featuring Chris Henry Coffey, Jake Robards, Jennifer Van Dyke,
Charles Socarides, Keira Naughton & Heidi Armbruster.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.
ML: I grew up in the Midwest, but I've always been fascinated by this so-called WASP culture, which seemed to be in power in New England. When I then came to Hartford Stage [in 1980], that was really my first time in that WASP territory, and I began to really have them around me. I mean, they were on the board of directors of the theatre, they were in the audience, they were on the street, and I began to be absolutely fascinated by this kind of person. So when I decided to produce Pete’s play Children [at Hartford Stage in 1987], it was, for me, an anthropological expedition. Just understanding what those people were like from someone who was part of the tribe. That's always what excites me about Pete’s plays. I also think I’ve come to understand the rhythms of his writing and the give and take of the characters. There's this sense of a conversation happening. It's also challenging. I've worked on so many projects—operas, big classical plays—where the stage is filled with people, and it’s very challenging to be in a three-character, four-character play [like one of Pete’s] and make sure that the bodies in motion are telling a story, are working off each other visually in a way that's interesting and true.

Sig: Pete, what does Mark bring into the rehearsal room as a director?

ARG: Mark is an ex-actor himself, and you can tell he knows how to talk to actors. I never, in any serious way, acted on the stage, so it’s his knowledge of the practicality of saying a line, getting on, getting off, that’s always appealed to me, ‘cause he's been there. All the actors always like him. He has no enemies. He doesn't boss them around, which some directors can do. He has a real sympathy and understanding and an ability to get good performances out of them.

Mark Lamos & A. R. Gurney at WCP's 2013 Gala.
Photo by Dave Matlow.
Sig: How did Love and Money come about?

ARG: When Mark says that WASP culture always interested him...it always interested me, too! And I had established a reputation to talk about that culture, so now—I'm 84 years old. I wanted to say goodbye to that culture, and I wanted that culture in a sense to say goodbye to itself because I think it’s over. I wanted to write a play which dealt with that.

Sig: Where does the title come from?

ARG: It was an old expression..."You can't get that for love or money." But I thought it would be Love and Money, not Love or Money, 'cause the play isn't about the combat between feelings and money, it’s all mixed up together: what money does to love and all the rest.

Sig: How does the music of Cole Porter fit into the world of the play?

ARG: If we had to pin down a poet of WASP culture, I'd say Cole Porter is it. Cole Porter went to Yale, he was two classes ahead of my father, and everybody talked about what fun he was, and so I find myself turning to him when I'm trying to write about this culture. In my play Sylvia, there's a great Cole Porter song that they all sing when he has to say goodbye to his dog and take a trip, and she gets on the couch—which she's not allowed to do—and sings “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” And certainly my play The Fourth Wall is nothing but Cole Porter. Cole Porter is the music that best illustrates both the wit and cleverness of the WASP culture, but also its dissolute quality, the booze, the "…in the still of the night, do you love me?" kinds of questions that he asks...

Sig: What does the theatre represent to these characters?

ARG: It’s the most communal endeavor that you can do. I think it's very important that our country—where we are all so diverse—have a theatre, because we learn to connect with other people, and that's what Cornelia wants at the end of the play.

ML: I always think in Pete’s plays, theatre is a kind of escape from the constrictions of the WASP background.

ARG: I agree. The WASP culture has a number of ways of escaping. Too much of it being about booze. The theatre is a way of escaping creatively. And speaking to others in an outgoing way.

ML: Sharing. It's sending a letter to the world and welcoming a diverse audience into a world and a vision.

Sig: Pete, this is the final play of your Signature residency. Do you have any thoughts looking back on your time here?

ARG: I think it's a great place to work. In both plays of mine so far, Signature resurrected plays that I didn't really think had a chance, particularly The Wayside Motor Inn. I said to Jim, “This play is never done. Are you sure you want to do it?” And he said, "Yeah." The same thing happened with What I Did Last Summer. Signature allowed [director] Jim Simpson to put a drummer in, allowed the designer, Michael Yeargan, to use rear screen projections in a new way. I said, “It’s not gonna work.” But it worked! So my experience of Signature was them pointing out to me value in work of mine that I didn't think had much value. And that's a special thing about Signature.

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