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by Joseph Montebello

It’s hard to believe that Pete Gurney ever had trouble getting a play produced. But his first play, based on a story by John Cheever, was rejected in this country.

“I think the problem was that the main character stays pretty much off stage,” said Gurney. “Not many actors like not being seen. But a British company picked it up, hired a big star and it was performed at the Mermaid Theater quite successfully. That was the first time I began to think of myself as a playwright.”

Thus the beginning of an extraordinary career that is still going strong. It has brought Gurney innumerable awards and accolades, At eighty-three, he is still a major force in American theater. Last fall saw the revivals of two of his plays, one of which was Love Letters, which has become an American classic. Who would have thought that a two-character play with actors reading their lines could elicit such an emotional response from theatergoers.

“I wrote a story in the form of letters between a man and a woman. I sent it to The New Yorker. They returned it within a week saying that they didn’t publish plays. So my agent said why not try it as a play. So I got Holland Taylor to do a reading with me and it went very well. The play seems to appeal to all ages.”

Gurney, or “Pete” as he is known to almost everyone, seemed destined to have a career in the theater. “I grew up in Buffalo and there many semi-professional community theaters that put on excellent plays. We were always involved and putting on shows for one occasion or another. At that time road companies of Broadway shows always came to Buffalo and I’d always go with my parents,” he said.

One of the questions Gurney is asked many times is how someone christened Albert Ramsdell Gurney became known as Pete.

“No one wanted to call me Junior and since there were other relatives called Albert, Al, and Bert, there wasn’t much left for me. Someone suggested Pete and it stuck,” he explained.

Although Gurney has written a musical, an opera libretto, and three works of fiction, the play is still his favorite form of narrative.

“Writing fiction requires more words,” he explained. “You can write an entire scene in four or five pages because it’s dialogue. With fiction you write and write all day and are lucky to get one good page.”

And his involvement isn’t over once the script is completed. Gurney enjoys the collaborative effort that occurs once a play is ready for production.

“There is a team in place and we’re all in it together,” said Gurney. “First the director is chosen; then the cast is in place and finally the audience comes in. That’s the best part: to be able to come together communally and collaboratively respond to what happens on stage.”

Gurney divides his time between New York City and his home in Roxbury where he has lived for over thirty years. While he shows no signs of slowing down, he does manage to enjoy the peace and serenity that come with living in the country – when he is not hiking, playing tennis or gardening.