Gurney's hour has come on Broadway

Although A. R. Gurney has written nearly a play a year for the past 25 years - and has seen them achieve success Off Broadway and in regional theaters - it is not until the opening tonight of ``Sweet Sue'' at New York's Music Box Theater that the veteran playwright will have arrived on Broadway. It is an ironic, if somewhat tardy, Broadway debut for this playwright, who, has been called the theatrical spokesman of the ``upper-middle-class WASPs.'' With the exception of his recent comedies - ``The Dining Room'' and ``The Perfect Party'' - most of Mr. Gurney's work has generated tepid critical response, despite occasional comparisons with writers John Cheever and Philip Barry. Now, however, Gurney's thematic territory - the decline of the wealthy Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture - appears to be coming into its own.

Not only is ``Sweet Sue'' bowing on Broadway with two name stars, Mary Tyler Moore and Lynn Redgrave, but ``The Perfect Party'' has opened at Washington's Kennedy Center after a successful Off Broadway run last year. Gurney's newest work, ``Another Antigone'' will premi`ere at San Diego's Old Globe Theater later this spring. Meanwhile, ``The Dining Room'' remains one of the most frequently produced plays among regional theaters.

``I'm not sure it is the Yuppie values that my plays celebrate,'' cautioned Gurney in a recent interview during ``Sweet Sue's'' pre-Broadway run in Boston. ``I think in the '60s and early '70s, when I began to write seriously, the so-called WASPs were considered to be the establishment and responsible for the Vietnam War and all the injustices at the heart of American society. So when I was writing plays which dealt with [this social class] in a somewhat sympathetic way, people dismissed them.''

While such sociological aspects undoubtedly impacted the reception of Gurney's early work, critics also argue that the playwright's talents have developed over the years. Although ``The Dining Room,'' a humorous and poignant examination of upper-middle-class domestic habits, was the breakthrough for Gurney in terms of commercial success (it ran for nearly two years Off Broadway), ``The Perfect Party'' is considered a more daring leap forward in both structure and theme.

Although often criticized for writing that is cautious on dramatic exposition and heavy-handed in its moralizing, Gurney is considered as facile as Mr. Cheever at carving real characters from a potentially homogeneous social class. His protagonists, such as Tony in ``The Perfect Party'' and the nephew in ``The Dining Room,'' are of two minds about their patrician privileges. Now, in ``Sweet Sue,'' Gurney again probes his characters' ambivalence, but with a fresh dramatic twist: two actors play one character.

```The Perfect Party' was a kind of experiment in language,'' Gurney says. ```Sweet Sue' takes another tack as far as experimentation goes,'' says Gurney. ``It is about the complicated and conflicting emotions on the part of this woman and this boy. I wanted her to say `yes' and `no' at the same time. I wanted a sense of division and agreement. I discovered I could be both more profound emotionally and funnier - the play is a comedy - if I had two voices rather than one for each of the two characters.''

Based loosely on the Greek myth of Phaedra - a woman who falls in love with her stepson - ``Sweet Sue'' takes place in a New York suburb in the 1980s. Susan Wetherell (Misses Moore and Redgrave both play the lead) is a successful designer of greeting cards who loses her heart - and much of her rigid self-control - to the handsome roommate of her college-age son. (Two actors, Barry Tubb and John Linton, also play the male lead.)

``I think it is about American cheerfulness and American optimism and to what degree that is simply a mask for anxieties and fears we are unwilling to face,'' adds the author. ``Although I have written about a repressive culture and repressed people before, I'm not sure I've ever written about someone who goes beyond repression.''

Gurney says Moore was the actress ``who came naturally to mind'' when he was first looking for his Susan. The character she played in ``Ordinary People,'' he says, ``was a woman who was unable to open up to her son, who closes down in a way that is destructive to her family. `Sweet Sue' is the reverse of that. It is the study of the slow flowering of a woman.''

Although Redgrave, an actress far different in temperament and background, brings a quieter, more stolid strength to her role as Susan's alter ego, Gurney cautions against any unduly delineated reading of the characters. ``You don't say Mary stands for the good side and Lynn for the bad side. Or Mary for the aggressive side and Lynn for the passive side. It doesn't work that way. It's as if you had two first-class productions of the play with two first class actresses and said, `Let's blend them.'''

``Sweet Sue'' can be considered part of the fruits of Gurney's recent hiatus from his decades-long position as an English professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Now living in New York and writing fulltime, this prolific playwright and novelist still exudes the tweedy affability of a well-bred, well-educated academic.

The son of a weathly family in Buffalo, Gurney says he stumbled into writing against his family's wishes. ``My father in particular felt it was a slightly disreputable profession,'' he says. ``I just found myself always liking to write and I wanted to do it in terms of dialogue.

``I believe in hybrid vigor,'' adds Gurney. ``I believe the American temperament can be a combination of many things. ... The WASPS, I like to think, have brought something, and will continue to bring something, to the culture in terms of a sense of honor and rectitude and energy and unselfishness. Although I certainly criticize other sides of the Protestant culture, I hope that I can celebrate some of those values in my plays.''

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