Often called the John Cheever of the theater for his celebration of the familial and moral virtues that once informed American culture, Gurney writes, with both humor and rue, of this system’s decline within the latter decades of the twentieth century. His first theatrical success, Scenes from American Life (pr. 1970), also presented in vignettes, ranges from the Depression to an Orwellian world in the 1980’s where computers control a racially and socially bigoted country. In Children (pr. 1974), based on a story by Cheever, Gurney explores the internal ideological contradictions which disintegrate a wealthy family during its annual summer vacation. The Middle Ages (pr. 1977), in which the action is staged in the trophy room of a men’s club and spans the mid-1940’s to the late 1970’s through the use of flashbacks, explores the social history of the Protestant elite over three decades and reveals the economic and cultural power which this sect wields over American society.
Gurney’s preoccupation with the influence and evolution of WASP society as well as his quest for new dramaturgical ground, as demonstrated from his earliest play, Scenes from American Life, through his first memory play, What I Did Last Summer (pr. 1982), surfaces repeatedly and forms the trademark of his playwriting. In Sweet Sue (pr. 1986), to convey the dual aspects of personality, Gurney’s main characters (Susan and Jake) are each played by two performers who symbolize each character’s psychological dichotomy. Another Antigone (pr. 1986), atypically serious in tone, involves a classics professor and his female student whose clash over academic and personal values, in Creon-Antigone fashion, eventually causes the academician’s ruin and, more important, signifies the tragic consequences of stereotyping individuals. Similarly, The Cocktail Hour (pr. 1988) dramatizes the archetypal conflict between the older and younger generations; focused once again on the WASP familial unit, this play broaches the universal theme of parental love and forgiveness.
Gurney’s plays in general deal with ordinary middle-class characters, and although they seldom suffer severe tragic consequences, his characters do represent the cross section of America with which the mass audience can easily identify. His plays, neither as volatile as Sam Shepard’s nor as caustic as Christopher Durang’s, satirize a familiar American landscape. It is his thematic interests and familiar characters that enable his plays to communicate readily ideas which, while similar to those of many contemporary playwrights, are dramatized by Gurney in a manner that makes them accessible and entertaining to most American theatergoers. Like Cheever and the others he emulates, Gurney is a contemporary writer for mainstream America.