Master Playwright A.R.Gurney has used his own life as background material for some 50 plays, 4 musicals, plus 3 novels. Born in 1930 in Buffalo, New York, he decided early on to “write what he knew”, and he has since probed and poked into the many aspects of his life as a White Anglo Saxon American, who has witnessed his WASP world evolve into a rainbow coalition beyond his wildest imagination at the start. He’s dealt with himself as a son, a father, a husband, a teacher, and certainly as a playwright, whether returning home to seek his parents’ permission to use them in a play (The Cocktail Hour) or to interview a Buffalo icon, the great star Katherine Cornell (The Grand Manner). He’s dealt with country club life, with grandparenthood. He played his own grandfather once in a reading of Ancestral Voices, which along with Love Letters and Screen Play were meant to be read directly to the audience rather than being fully staged. Now in his mid-eighties his work is ubiquitous, for earlier works are being revived everywhere. Sometimes he has three going in New York at the same time.
His latest, Love and Money, at the Signature Theatre, has been brought into town from Westport, Connecticut where its artistic director Mark Lamos staged it earlier this summer. With a cast of five, it deals with the distribution of great wealth by the matriarch of another WASP family, one “Cornelia Cunningham” as played by Maureen Anderman.
She is determined to see that virtually all of her worldly goods are bestowed without question to a group of charities, mostly benefiting under privileged children of the world. A young attorney in the law firm that represents her comes to inform her that there is a complication: a letter has been received, written by one Walker “Scott” Williams, claiming to be her grandson, the son of her daughter, now deceased.
The first half hour of this seventy minute play in one act is filled with the delightful badinage which introduces us to two impeccably written characters, one the matriarch of a prominent family and the other the young attorney who has brought news from a claimant that will upset her plan. She has no knowledge of this character’s existence and the rest of the play offers the intruder himself, a household fixture of a servant who has been at her job for over thirty years, and a representative of an organization which has been promised a piano which also has an impeccable pedigree. The claimant is a young black man whose story she allows to unfold and as he’s well equipped with facts that would seem to validate his claim, she appears to be sold on his authenticity. Her attorney and her maid have doubts, and as the play unfolds, she will have them too.
The young man is played by Gabriel Brown, a lithe and lean charmer who surprises us with almost everything he says. In addition, he’s able to perform some of Cole Porter’s most infectious songs, accompanied by the player piano. Brown is so appealing that we can almost accept Ms. Cunningham’s attraction to him and her seeming willingness to accept his story. Or does she? Her ultimate decision about what to do about him is satisfying and all ends on a very happy note with all parties very pleased with the results.
John Guare in 1990 dealt with a similar theme in his Six Degrees of Separation, and that play served him well on stage as well as on screen as a film with Will Smith. His play is richer than this sketchy piece that puts language back on stage, but though it attempts to throw darts at the American dream gone wrong, it succeeds only in giving us a boulevard comedy that manages to bring some relief from summer’s heat, but which by no means quenches our thirst for more. Ms. Anderman is pure joy as she tries to make us believe that great wealth is a killer every time.
Mr. Brown plays the supplicant with unflinching confidence, but his character is glib and facile, and to the play’s disadvantage, he doesn’t have the material with which to make us truly root for him. I thoroughly enjoyed Joe Paulik’s take on the young attorney, the writing of whose role seemed to me the must substantive. He imbues the lawyer with intelligence and he gives him a sense of humor that is appealing. Pamela Dunlap and Kahyun Kim round out the cast capably.
As language is fast disappearing from our everyday life, Mr. Gurney is always welcome and refreshing. It has its moments, but it needs work.
Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.
Love and Money plays through October 4, 2015 at The Pershing Square Signature Center – 480 West 42nd Street, in New York City. For tickets, call the box office at (212) 244-7529, or purchase them online.