A.R. Gurney, the noted balladeer of that great American underappreciated class—wealthy white people—drew his last breath on June 13, 2017, at 86. But fear not! Little more than a year later, Gurney is back at Primary Stages with Final Follies, another installment of his whimsical musings on how tough life is in country clubs, elite universities, and manor houses. He and his beloved, deserving rich people live on.
If that isn’t a metaphor, I don’t know what is.
OK, to be fair, only the titular Final Follies—the first of three wan, trivial one-acts that constitute this potpourri evening—can be classified as “new.” (And even then…) The others are The Rape of Bunny Stuntz, written in 1965 (though even 53 years doesn’t excuse the ghastly, tone-deaf title), and The Love Course, from 1969.
What none of them proves, even remotely, is worth producing.
Seen here, Final Follies is first and worst. Its premise—a handsome trust-fund brat on the brink of middle age shows up for a job interview; gradually, we discover he’s auditioning for porn—is a single joke that’s not really developed. A half-hearted attempt to incorporate some racial undercurrents merely induces squeamishness. And actors Colin Hanlon, Rachel Nicks, and Mark Junek, working under David Saint’s awkward direction, make little impression. Only a short appearance by Greg Mullavey as a bemused grandfather momentarily provides some relief, and that is due entirely to the actor’s personal charm.
The Love Course, the final playlet, is a lame mini-farce about warring college professors—she’s Carraway, he’s Burgess. Once-upon-a-time, they were lovers, cheating on their respective spouses with each other. The affair may be over, but they still co-teach a seminar on the literature of love.
Much intended humor is mined from Gurney’s palpable disdain of elite education. We are, for example, meant to chuckle knowingly at a syllabus that mixes Tristan und Isolde, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and The Lion in Winter. Both professors quickly demonstrate themselves to be pretentious idiots, their teaching style and course commentary plays like a Dinesh D’Souza frothing-at-the-mouth fantasy, and it’s simply not funny. Actress Betsy Aidem labors mightily to make something of Carraway, but TheLove Course cannot be defibrillated. Gurney, who attended at Yale and taught at MIT, should have known better.
That leaves the middle one act, Bunny Stuntz, the evening’s only success. But let me be very clear—this is not on the basis of the script, which is mostly as vacuous as the other two, and in addition, as the title suggests, in poor taste. Bunny, a soigné matron, graciously presides over a meeting of unhappy people. Addicts? Rageaholics? It’s not clear, nor is Bunny’s own behavior, which involves a mysterious box that she can’t manage to open, and an even more mysterious man who keeps watching her, whom she claims she wishes would leave, yet somehow we know it’s more complicated.
Bunny is the most ambitious of these works, with Gurney attempting to channel a kind of Beckettian or at least Albee-esque sense of unseen disorientation, at which he largely fails.
That it proves to be not only worth watching, but for me one of the highlights of the season, is due to Deborah Rush, whose Bunny is an astonishing, electrifying creation—the latest in a long series from this always excellent actress, and for me it’s her best work yet. By turns fragile and hard-as-nails, girlish and embittered, brittle and vulnerable, Rush can send shockwaves into a room while seemingly doing almost nothing.
Yes, Gurney deserves some credit for providing Rush with material that fits like a glove. But the triumph is largely hers. I’ve often noted that sometimes actors give their finest performances not in great works, but in minor plays that by some lucky alchemy showcase their particular gifts in a special way. And make no mistake—Rush is one of our best actors, and woefully under-utilized. She would have been sensational, for example, in the 2014 revival of A Delicate Balance as either Agnes or Claire (and in both cases a significant upgrade on what we got).
Even with Rush, I could not in good conscience recommend Final Follies to anyone but die-hard devotees of acting who will tolerate almost anything for one truly superb performance. Without her…well, it’s a fatuous exercise that proves the entitled patriarchy can’t die soon enough.