The last comedy completed by A. R. Gurney, who died last year, begins as so many early chapters of adult lives do — with a job interview. But the candidate in the affectingly titled “Final Follies,” at the Cherry Lane Theater, is scraping against middle age and would seem to have no viable set of skills for the 21st century.
He does, however, possess the necessary attributes to anchor a Gurney play. He is well mannered, well dressed, self deprecating, confident and aimless. His name is Nelson (Colin Hanlon), and he has been without a job for a while.
Nelson has previously worked briefly as an English teacher at a prep school and as a vice president at his grandfather’s bank. He plays a little squash and is currently into “some serious cross-country.” The job he is now seeking is that of an actor in “discreet adult videos which have therapeutic value.”
Ah, how the once rich and mighty have fallen. Or as Nelson tells his amused interviewer, Tanisha (née Virginia, and played winningly by Rachel Nicks), “You know what we’re really taking about here …. The waning of the WASP culture.”
The tribal ways and shrinking means of that culture were Gurney’s abiding subjects during a long and fecund career that began six decades ago. The three plays, early and late, that appear under the umbrella title of the latest one, “Final Follies,” allow Gurney fans a rare chance to compare the playwright at the beginning and the end of his career. They have been directed, broadly but affectionately, by David Saint in a Primary Stages production.
Judging by the evidence at hand, Gurney definitely improved with age. “Final Follies,” which was finished only weeks before his death at 86, is a charming benediction and farewell to the caste whose demise he chronicled so faithfully. The other offerings, first published in the 1960s, suggest a writer still clearing his throat in the process of finding his own voice.
Both “The Rape of Bunny Stuntz” (1964) and “The Love Course” (1969) show a young Gurney under the sway of the fashionable influences of a decade in upheaval. You can see bright sparks, though, of the mature dramatist in the making, as well as flashes of the trenchant wit and contemplative melancholy that would become his signature. (James Youman’s single, modernist set is transformed by Cory Pattak’s lighting to match the changing moods and times.)
The “rape” of the earlier work is metaphoric, meant to evoke the violation of a dissatisfied housewife’s middle-class pieties. This infelicitously titled, Absurdist romp suggests Gurney had been reading a lot of Edward Albee, and it makes sense that it was first performed at the Cherry Lane, a Greenwich Village bastion of experimental theater.
Played with a steely sweetness that suggests cotton candy spun from picture wire, Deborah Rush’s Bunny (and, yes, you may call her that) is the chairwoman of an unspecified group of unhappy people. She would bring the meeting to order if only she could open the mysterious box she says contains all her notes and agenda.
But she appears to have lost the key, you see. And a sinister man in a black leather jacket, who has arrived in a red Impala, is waiting, unseen, in the shadows, claiming that he has the key. Bunny slides offstage to slap him (and be slapped), like “some cheap, second-rate blonde in a B movie,” as she puts it, adding tartly, “I’ve slipped to that level apparently.”
This playlet — which features Piter Marek and Betsy Aidem in gargoylish supporting roles — is terminally of its era, with its evocation of the dark desires churning beneath a chipper Betty Crocker life. But Ms. Rush’s wry, subversively timed performance makes it worth watching.
“Bunny Stuntz” is also very much of the moment in one particular detail. Defending herself against (imagined) charges of infidelity with the unseen Impala driver, Bunny says that one need only consult her engagement calendar to confirm her innocence.
“Would you like to see that?” she asks defiantly. “Would that convince you that you’ve made a mistake?” It’s a moment that makes you wish that Gurney — who specialized in quick-sketch topical satires (most memorably in “Mrs. Farnsworth”) in his later career — had been around to provide his take on the newest member of the Supreme Court.
A onetime teacher of literature at M.I.T., Gurney also enjoyed sending up the jargon and dogma of academia. He was already shooting arrows in that direction with “The Love Course,” in which a team of professors — Burgess (Mr. Marek) and Carroway (Ms. Aidem) — have turned their shared seminar on great romantic literature (from Plato to D. H. Lawrence) into a platonic but passionate love affair.
The jokey central conceit is stretched too thin, but it allows Ms. Aidem to have an infectiously fine time as an arch self dramatizer. And Mr. Marek finds in the beleaguered, married Burgess hints of the more fully drawn, dissatisfied Gurney protagonists to come.
That would include Nelson of “Final Follies,” who is ready to abandon the comfortable but fading world he has inherited. His grandfather (Greg Mullavey) and brother (Mark Junek) show up as generational exhibits of dinosaurs marking out their last days on earth.
But it’s only Nelson, played by Mr. Hanlon with an easy smile and a sheepish air of entitlement, who fully realizes that his kind is now history. All he wants is to sail away toward parts unknown — preferably in a “sleek star-class yawl,” mind you.
Thus does Gurney, exercising the divine omnipotence of playwrights, generously present the last of his muddled men of privilege, resigned to his extinction and poised on the edge of the eternity of the open sea.