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Final Follies

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 2, 2018

Betsy Aidem and Piter Marek
Photo by James Leynse

Primary Stages is bidding its final farewell to playwright A. R. "Pete" Gurney, the noted chronicler of the foibles of upper class WASP life who passed away last year, with a production of three of his short works. Opening tonight at the Cherry Lane Theatre under the collective title Final Follies, the three one-acts represent different styles from across Gurney's career. The first is a gentle poke at the idle rich, the second is an absurdist satire about the hidden underbelly of suburban life, and the final piece is a very funny skewering of a pair of over-the-top lit professors.

Final Follies is not only the name given to the entire production, it is also the title of the first short play, something that Gurney completed shortly before his death. It tells the tale of Nelson (Colin Hanlon), the scion of a wealthy family and a man who has failed in every business enterprise he has vaguely put his hand to. Now Nelson has decided he will take a stab at acting. Much to the chagrin of his older brother (Mark Junek), however, the acting career Nelson has in mind is in porn films. The whole thing comes off as a bit of fluff, an amuse-bouche about the aimless life of a man who skates through it all by relying on charm and the indulgent generosity of his grandfather, played by Greg Mullavey, a master at keeping this sort of soft satire aloft.

The two plays that follow pack more of a punch. An early work, The Rape of Bunny Stuntz, is in the vein of one of John Cheever's short stories about the secret lives of seemingly upright suburbanites. Bunny Stuntz (Deborah Rush) is a no-nonsense matronly type who is about to take charge of a community meeting. She has brought her notes and materials for the meeting carefully tucked away in a small metal box, but she cannot find the key and is unable to proceed. Things quickly deteriorate as Bunny announces plans to run home to fetch the key while everyone else adjourns to the basement for "coffee." Before you know it, the coffee has been replaced by beer, and the whole thing has turned into a wild party. Meanwhile, Bunny, who has remained upstairs, is being harassed by an unseen man who has pulled up outside the meeting hall in his red Impala and dangles Bunny's missing key. Is he really a threatening stranger, or is there more to Bunny Stuntz than meets the eye? It's all very mysterious and quite entertaining to watch the thin veneer of civilized life melting away before our eyes.

The final play of the evening, The Love Course, is a farce about a pair of college faculty members, the flighty Professor Carroway (a very funny and off-kilter Betsy Aidem) and her colleague Professor Burgess (Peter Marek). They have spent the semester co-teaching a course in romantic literature, and this is to be their final lecture together. As in The Rape of Bunny Stuntz, things quickly crumble as we learn that the content of the course and the personal lives of the two professors have become entwined in unexpected ways. Everything plays out in front of the class in crazed comic fashion, with Betsy Aidem a standout at capturing the flibbertigibbet spirit of her character, caught up in all the dramatic romance within the works the class has been studying.

Director David Saint generally keeps things spinning at a rapid pace, especially with the more richly constructed Bunny Stutz and the comical Love Course. The best thing about the evening, though, is the opportunity it presents for audiences, who might be more familiar with Gurney's Pulitzer Prize-nominated Love Letters, to get a sense of the scope of his shorter works that manage both to puncture the upscale WASP world Gurney himself grew up in and to lament its passing, just as his friends and fans lament his.

Final Follies
Through October 21
Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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