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A.R. Gurney dead; ‘Dining Room,’ ‘Cocktail Hour’ playwright was 86

A. R. Gurney's first hit was

A. R. Gurney's first hit was "The Dining Room." Photo Credit: Getty Images for American Theater / Craig Barritt

A.R. Gurney, who chronicled the vanishing New England WASP establishment in more than 40 plays, including “The Dining Room” and “The Cocktail Hour,” died Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 86.

The playwright’s agent, Jonathan Lomma, who confirmed Gurney’s death, did not give a cause.

“He was a fine writer and a lovely man. We worked together on and off over the years, most recently on the Broadway Love Letters, during which I discovered a writer of even more richness than I had already experienced,” director Gregory Mosher tweeted on Wednesday. “Buried in that sneaky little play is a lot of pain, and an acute awareness of how really hard self-knowledge is.”

Actress Zoe Kazan also tweeted her admiration: “AR Gurney was a beautiful writer. My 1st experience acting was in his play THE DINING ROOM in HS. Lovely guy too.

Gurney, often called Pete, was born Albert Ramsdell Gurney Jr., in Buffalo, New York, into an upper-class milieu that quickly became identified as his own theatrical stomping ground. Almost outlandishly prolific into his ’80s, Gurney wrote breezy, modestly cast, deceptively conventional comedies that were, at heart, astute behavioral studies of people who seemed almost exotic in a form dominated by characters from big cities and big ethnicities.

His first hit, “The Dining Room,” opened Off-Broadway in 1982. The work, a canny collection of mini-scenes with different families all set in the same decorous room, made enough of a splash to let him quit teaching humanities at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and try life as a New York playwright.

He was the rare commercial theater force who, for the most part, made his career without Broadway. “I normally do not write for Broadway,” he said in an interview before his “Love Letters” had a brief Broadway revival with rotating stars in 2014. “I don’t like it. If someone has to pay $150, it puts a particular type of frame around the play — the emphasis on a large cast and elaborate costumes and scenery.”

For example, his biggest success, “Love Letters,” had just two actors sitting at a table and reading from 50 years of letters between friends. A Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1990, it has been adapted into 24 languages, including Urdu, and performed in more than 40 countries.

Gurney’s upbringing was fertile material throughout his career. In 2010, “The Grand Manner” was based on his memory — admittedly idealized — of himself as a theater-struck boarding-school student who wrangled permission to go to New York in 1948 and see actress Katharine Cornell in “Antony and Cleopatra.” “What I Did Last Summer” — written in 1983 and revived in 2015 when Gurney was playwright-in-residence at the Signature Theatre Company — was based on his life-changing summer encounter as a teen with an inspirational bohemian outcast.

Gurney’s mainstream career took an unpredictable turn in the early part of this century, when he became a favorite of the downtown Flea Theatre, the off Off-Broadway company founded by Jim Simpson and his wife, Sigourney Weaver.

Occasionally, Gurney’s plays ventured beyond his roots. In 1999, “Far East” took us to defeated Japan. “The Wayside Motor Inn,” dismissed in 1977 as too confusing and rediscovered by the Signature in 2014, was a compelling experiment in form that overlapped five different stories in a single motel room outside Boston.

And then there is “Sylvia,” about the competition between a man’s wife and his dog. The role of the titular dog was a career-boosting showcase for Sarah Jessica Parker in 1995 and was revived on Broadway in 2015.

Gurney is survived by his wife of 60 years, Molly, four children, eight grandchildren and a brother and sister.

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