A.R. Gurney, the playwright who chronicled the foibles and mores of wealthy, white Anglo-Saxon protestants in plays such as “The Dining Room,” “The Cocktail Hour,” and “Love Letters,” died Tuesday at his Manhattan home. He was 86.
Gurney was a member of the upper class society he anatomized onstage in shows like his 1981 breakout “The Dining Room,” which tells the overlapping tales of the WASP families who inhabit the same dining room over the course of many years. His well-known 1988 play, “The Cocktail Hours,” is a highly autobiographical tale that centers on a playwright who returns to his family home to ask his family for approval of the production of a play he wrote about them.
His 1988 play “Love Letters” became a regional-theater staple. The epistolary tale, presented as a staged reading that requires little prep for the often well-known older actors to step into the show, follows a not-quite romance between two wealthy childhood friends. The last Broadway production of “Love Letters” initially starred Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy.
His 1995 play “Sylvia” was another success, in which a human actor plays a dog who is adopted by a middle-aged, upper-middle-class couple. Sarah Jessica Parker played Sylvia in the original Off Broadway production.
In later years, Gurney’s work sometimes took a more plainly political turn, with shows including “O Jerusalem” (a 2003 play about the Middle East) and “Mrs. Farnsworth” (2004). More recent works included “Love & Money,” which played Off Broadway in 2015.
One of three children, Gurney — often called Pete — was born in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1930, to a family whose patriarch was president of an insurance and real estate company. He attended Williams College and then the Yale School of Drama, from which he graduated in 1958, and he wrote early plays including “Children” and “The Middle Ages” while teaching humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He is survived by his wife and their four children.