Let’s christen this the autumn of A.R. Gurney.
New audiences are poised to discover the 83-year-old playwright, who delivers a one-two punch this season with “The Wayside Motor Inn”—the first offering of a year-long Signature Theatre residency—and the Broadway return of the heart-tugging, cast-rotating “Love Letters,” which begins performances later this month at the Brooks Atkinson.
“The Wayside Motor Inn” may not be as familiar a title as “Love Letters,” but the play, first produced here in 1977, is likely to gain fans thanks to a well-executed revival helmed by Brooklyn’s Lila Neugebauer, a recent Princess Grace Award winner.
“Wayside” sees six men and four women cast adrift at a homogenous motor inn just off a highway cloverleaf in suburban Boston. The guests on this evening include three couples of varying ages; a father and son; and a married salesman, traveling solo, but with his eye on the pretty waitress who brings him a burger, but warns him against eating it too close to the TV: “Gamma rays.”
Here’s what’s unusual: Though “Wayside” has 10 actors in five separate story lines, they’re often sharing the stage—and the set’s one room—at the same time. It’s a technique Gurney says was inspired at the time by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn. There is room for a whole bunch of folks at this inn.
To keep from getting in each other’s way, the performers generally stick to one part of the space (Andrew Lieberman’s set nicely evokes the schlocky Carter-era motel room, down to the orange bedspreads and walnut wall sconces).
Ray (Quincy Dunn-Baker), the salesman looking to seduce Sharon, the aimless room service attendant (Jenn Lyon, with a spot-on South Shore accent), prefers a chair at the foot of the TV. Phil and Sally (David McElwee and Ismenia Mendes), naive college kids looking for some private time away from their roommates, spend much of the second act in the tub.
I suspect it’s an enormous challenge for the actors to converse with their partners without interrupting dialogue in the other pairings, where other little dramas are unfolding just inches away. The 10 performers assembled here are wholly up to the task.
I was partial to Jon DeVries (Richard Nelson’s Apple Family plays) and Lizbeth Mackay (LCT’s “Domesticated”) as Frank and Jessie, a longtime married couple using the Wayside as a base to visit with their daughter in nearby Sudbury.
Jessie is a doter who is nearly helpless without her husband—she can take care of Frank better than Frank can, but can’t open a sliding glass door or traverse a short drive on the turnpike without his help. Frank, meanwhile, gets annoyed being fussed over. But his frustrations are building just at a time when he needs a spouse most.
The couple have one exchange that seemed to characterize “Wayside’s” reason for being: “We’re all in this thing together … I believe the most important things in the world have to do with other people,” Jessie says, while trying to convince Frank they’d be better off moving here from wherever in New England they make their home in order to be closer to the kids.
Comes Frank’s reply: “We’re all on our own, in the end.” Simple? Yeah. But so graceful in the hands of these performers, who have terrific chemistry.
Vince and Mark are a working-class father and son staying for the night ahead of Mark’s interview at Harvard.
Like any dad, Vince (Tony-nominee Marc Kudisch, of “9 to 5”) wants his son to have the opportunities he never had, but Vince is blind to what his kid (Will Pullen), who likes to work on cars, really wants. Tensions arise when Mark tries to emerge from Vince’s shadow, and those scenes are among the play’s more poignant, even if it’s a story that’s been told a million times.
The final twosome checking in for the night are Andy and Ruth (Kelly AuCoin and Rebecca Henderson), a couple negotiating the terms of their divorce, trying to avoid hostilities, and failing miserably at it. It’s an obvious, yet effective, juxtaposition to have Phil and Sally, that young couple, discussing positions in “The Joy of Sex” just feet away while Andy and Ruth grapple with the end of their marriage.
Nothing gets wrapped up at the Wayside Motor Inn, so if you need your drama with resolutions, look elsewhere. What Gurney and Signature offer, compellingly, is a slice-of-life drama in which the mundane tasks of a day—going for a drive on the turnpike, stitching a torn shirt, or ordering a burger from room service—make for all the excitement we need.
“The Wayside Motor Inn,” through Sept. 28 at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. Tickets: $25-$75. Call 212-244-7529, or visit signaturetheatre.org.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn