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A.R. Gurney, chronicler of Buffalo's fading grandeur, dies at 86

Playwright A.R. Gurney has died at age 86. (News file photo)

Nov. 1, 1930 - June 13, 2017

A.R. "Pete" Gurney, the Buffalo-born playwright who spun stories about the city's upper class into a literary career that spanned five decades and entertained millions, died Tuesday morning at his home in New York City. He was 86.

His death was confirmed by his niece Jenipher Gurney. The cause was not known.

Gurney, whose dozens of plays make up a sprawling mythology built on his experiences growing up in Buffalo's fading WASP culture, is best known for his plays "Love Letters," "The Dining Room" and "The Cocktail Hour." Each of them draws upon the playwright's well-heeled upbringing in Buffalo, which served as the basis for much of his oeuvre and earned him a committed following from local and regional theaters around the country.

No Buffalo-born literary figure in the past half-century has loomed as large or as lingered as long on the national stage as Gurney did.

Gurney was born in Buffalo on Nov. 1, 1930 to the real estate and insurance magnate Albert Ramsdell Gurney and Marion Spaulding. He grew up in the family's estate on Lincoln Parkway and attended Buffalo's Nichols School. He later attended boarding school at St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., Williams College in Williamstown , Mass. and the Yale School of Drama.

In addition to his active and lucrative career as a playwright, Gurney taught literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1962 until the mid-1980s.

During the most active period of his career, beginning in the late 1960s and stretching into the '90s, Gurney churned out at least a play a year. His breakout success with "The Dining Room," however, did not come until 1981. At that point, he told The Buffalo News in 1987, "everything began to happen."

Gurney's Broadway debut came in 1987 with a production of "Sweet Sue," now little remembered. But he clinched further fame with "The Cocktail Hour" in 1988 and, in that same year, the immensely popular epistolary play "Love Letters," which remains a favorite of community and regional theaters and can be seen somewhere in Buffalo at least once a year.

Throughout his career, Gurney maintained a close connection to Buffalo and its theater community, which frequently produced his plays and hosted him for fundraising events.

Recent productions of Gurney's work, aside from the near-constant productions of "Love Letters," include the Kavinoky Theatre's "Family Furniture" in 2015, Road Less Traveled Productions' "Ancestral Voices" in 2012 and the Kavinoky's take on "The Grand Manner," about Buffalo-born actress Katharine Cornell, in 2011.

A production of "Love Letters" starring Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal played in the 710 Main Theatre last year. He also served as the chair of the Theatre District Association's Curtain Up! celebration in 2013.

"Pete was very interested in continuing the mentor relationship for young theater artists," said Road Less Traveled co-founder and artistic director Scott Behrend, who Gurney helped to clinch an assistant director job in New York City. "He wanted always to push the idea of that mentor-mentee relationship, because he thought it had vanished from the theater."

In both style and subject matter, Gurney was the polar opposite of Buffalo's Emanuel Fried, whose plays championed the working class. For Gurney, the class struggle was background noise to the task at hand: mining the rituals, habits and preoccupations of the city's patrician class to tell universal stories.

"Buffalo was the heart of my life," Gurney told The News in 1987. After his parents sent him to boarding school in New Hampshire, he said, "I felt exiled from that very cozy womb of a city I had grown up in, with all the rituals of social solidarity that had kind of comforted me. Despite the fine education that I got at St. Paul's School, I really felt that somehow I'd been banished from Eden."

But it was Gurney's banishment that allowed him to thrive. With a few notable exceptions, such as a futuristic take of "Casablanca" in which political refugees fled through Western New York to Canada, Gurney's Buffalo was always a place trapped in the amber of his childhood.

It was this nostalgic distance that allowed him to build his characters, which were cobbled together out of his own upper-class experience but appealed to audiences of many backgrounds.

"He seemed to appeal to everyone, no matter where you were on the social ladder," said Buffalo actress Mary Kate O'Connell, who has frequently performed in "Love Letters." "He seemed to have way to find that thread that linked us all."

Gurney is survived by his wife, the former Molly Goodyear, and four children: George Gurney of Connecticut, Amy Nicholas of Connecticut, Evelyn Gurney of New York City and Benjamin Gurney of Massachusetts. He is also survived by a brother, Stephen Spaulding Gurney of Connecticut and a sister, Evelyn Gurney Miller, of Buffalo, and eight grandchildren.

According to Jennifer Gurney, the family is making arrangements for a Buffalo service.


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