By Patricia Freeman
January 23, 1989 12:00 PM

In the regions of the upper crust where Albert Ramsdell Gurney Jr. was raised, well-bred people become queasy at the prospect of public exposure. Let the newly privileged classes—movie stars, athletes and game show hosts—tell the world of their childhood traumas, bouts of bulimia and visits to the Betty Ford Center. Gurney’s tribe—”the American East Coast bourgeoisie,” as the 58-year-old playwright once described it—prefers to maintain a genteel, tight-lipped reserve.

But Gurney has made a career of breaking this mold. His plays not only poke gentle fun at “WASPs and their sense of isolation in a changing world,” but also—fortify yourself with another martini—draw freely on his own family for character and plot. “He says he has to write what he knows about,” says his mother, Marian Goodyear, obviously mystified by Gurney’s propensity to dramatize such things as his grandfather’s funeral and his grandmother’s senile delusions. “You just never know what’s coming out next.”

This season, Gurney has come out with an off-Broadway hit called The Cocktail Hour, which is his most autobiographical work to date. It’s the story of a playwright, John, who returns home seeking his family’s permission to put on a play he has written about them. Like Gurney’s earlier plays, the new comedy is set in an insular, blue-blooded world similar to the Buffalo society in which he was raised, a world Gurney once described as bounded by “the Saturn Club, the Nichols School and dancing classes run by an immortal martinet of a man who also taught my grandmother.” It is a world in which people still complain of a servant problem and the cocktail hour is the last bastion of civilized behavior.

At that hour, of course, under the solvent of gin or good Scotch, the stereotypical WASP reserve is likely to melt and, as the stage family debates the merits of John’s new project, long-suppressed feelings begin to surface. His sister, Nina, wonders whether her small role in the play reflects her inconsequentiality in the family. Enraged, his father reveals a preference for John’s offstage younger brother, Jigger. John’s mother tries desperately to smooth over everything with another little drink. “It has certainly been an exploration for me,” says Gurney of writing the play. “I didn’t realize I had all those feelings—the anger, the sibling rivalry. When I finished I didn’t even want it performed.” When it opened, he advised his 81-year-old mother not to see it.

He had reason for concern. Gurney’s plays have been raising family fears since 1958, when he mounted a student production of his Love in Buffalo at the Yale School of Drama. “My whole family came there in trepidation to see [it] and left in relief,” recalled Gurney, who had graduated from St. Paul’s School and Williams College and served in the Navy before enrolling at Yale. Things went less smoothly 12 years later when Gurney’s Scenes from American Life—a series of sketches that included characters from his childhood—opened in Buffalo. He rewrote parts of the play the night his parents attended because, he says, “they had gotten hold of the script and told me, ‘You can’t say that, because you’ll upset So-and-so.’ ” Even so his father, A.R. Gurney Sr., president of the family insurance and real estate business, refused to speak to him afterward. Gurney’s father, who died in 1977, also made his feelings known at a 1969 performance of Tonight in Living Color. “I got him good seats, not knowing he’d be sitting next to a critic,” says Gurney, “and he sat there the whole time saying, ‘Do you think this is any good? How can you laugh at this?’ ”

Gurney “likes to stir things up—that’s why he writes plays,” admits his wife of 31 years, Molly Goodyear Gurney, a nutritionist and fellow member of Buffalo society. (The families have been acquainted for generations, and after their spouses died, Gurney’s mother married Molly’s father, a lawyer.) Until 1981, the couple, who have raised four children—George, 30, Amy, 29, Evelyn, 27, and Ben, 26—lived in Boston, where Gurney has a tenured job teaching literature at MIT. “My children’s image of me was of a guy who’d go down to New York and come back horribly wounded,” says Gurney of the long decades before his first hit, The Dining Room, in 1982. “A bad review just kills me.” Now on leave from the university, Gurney and his wife divide their time between a Manhattan apartment and a Connecticut country house.

So far, Gurney has not written a play about his wife or children. “My tone is satirical, and I don’t want in any way to humiliate my kids,” he says. So the next generation of Gurneys has been spared the experience of seeing elements of their speech, home, friends and most cherished attitudes decked out in greasepaint.

Despite her son’s warnings that the play hits “pretty close to home,” Marian Goodyear did attend a performance of The Cocktail Hour in New York and announced afterward that she liked it. And why not? “That wasn’t your father,” she explained to her son. “That wasn’t me.”