If you thought you knew A.R. Gurney, you’re in for a bit of a surprise. Final Follies, Primary Stages’ collection of three Gurney one-acts, reveals facets of the late, beloved playwright that steer clear of the collective impression of him. Yes, WASPs frequent the stage, though not exclusively, and Gurney is concerned as usual with questions of status, repression, and traditions passed on from generation to generation. But he wanders into what seems very un-Gurney territory—with uneven but often beguiling results.
His willingness to explore unfamiliar horizons is evident from the first of the one-acts, the eponymous Final Follies, a very late Gurney that mentions things like Uber and iPads and is set in a porn studio. Nelson (Colin Hanlon) wanders into it, a prototypical Gurney character. Blessed with a noble WASP heritage and a rich, generous grandfather, he has failed at everything he’s tried. But he turns out to be a natural at “discreet adult videos that have therapeutic value,” as Tanisha (Rachel Nicks), the businesslike erotic-actress-turned-office-manager, puts it. Sparks fly between them, and as his star rises in this singular milieu, word gets out to his straitlaced brother (Mark Junek), who’s mortified. Seeking to embarrass Nelson out of the profession, he unveils a video to Grandpa (Greg Mullavey—what’s TV’s Tom Hartman doing in such a small, unchallenging role?), with unexpected results. There’s also talk of privilege and debutante parties and “the waning of the WASP culture,” but Final Follies is the lightest of trifles, so wispy it’s barely there. Cute, though, and it’s fun to watch Gurney dip his toe into what must have been, for him, some pretty strange waters.
The Rape of Bunny Stuntz is not really about rape, but sexual predation does enter into it, and the piece is an odd one. Very early Gurney, it’s played here as if it were the mid-’60s, with David Murin supplying costumes that would suit a Laura Petrie or an Ann Marie. And Bunny (Deborah Rush) might have come out of a mid-’60s sitcom—not the star, but the star’s best friend; think Mary Jane Croft or Bonnie Scott, for those who have long memories or obscure streaming channels. Crisp and efficient, with clipped consonants and a perfect bouffant, she gesticulates a lot but maintains the utmost poise.
Bunny is attempting to chair a community meeting of some sort, but can’t find the key to the box she brought that contains the agenda. Variously abetted and hindered by her friends (Peter Marek and a very funny Betsy Aidem), she fails to engage the crowd, which retires to the lounge to quaff beer and sing showtunes. (It really does sound like there’s a party going on in the next room; Scott Killian did the excellent sound design.)
Her composure fading, Bunny is distracted by a mysterious offstage stranger, who may or may not have the missing key, and with whom she may or may not have had a fling. Rush, with crack timing and flawless technique, is something to watch, but what Gurney’s saying—is he writing about unfulfilled desires? suburban secrets? middle-class hypocrisy?—isn’t clear.
Then, finally, some top-flight Gurney—The Love Course, from the early ’70s, a witty discourse on muted passions that features four terrific actors in four terrific roles. Professors Burgess and Carroway (Marek and Aidem, respectively; both are unrecognizable from the previous playlet) co-teach a college course in romantic literature, with the expected Shakespeare and Tolstoy, but also such stray authors as James Goldman. It’s the last class, and each professor is departing next semester, he to an administrative position and she to Mount Holyoke, and it’s evident from the start that each has deep feelings for the other, though not necessarily affectionate ones.
A prize pupil (Nicks) has dragged along her boyfriend (Hanlon), and they, too, are in a transitional phase of their relationship. Accusations, misunderstandings, and power games pile up, along with passages from Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights. David Saint directs this one to a fare-thee-well, with laugh-getting double-takes and reactions and body language—just watching Hanlon bound unhappily up the aisle to deliver an unkind message from Carroway to the departed Burgess is a show in itself. The other two titles aren’t up to this one, but the acting throughout is splendid. And if the three one-acts aren’t all keepers, mixed-bag Gurney is still better than none.
Final Follies plays through Oct. 21 at the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce St.). Evening performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; there will be no 8 p.m. performance on Oct. 10. Matinees are Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. There will be no matinee on Oct. 17. For tickets, call Ovationtix at (866) 811-4111 or visit primarystages.com.