A.R.Gurney is a national treasure, who earned his sobriquet slowly and surely by writing over forty plays in the past 60 years, rivaling his contemporary Sir Alan Ayckbourn in productivity. Like his British colleague, Gurney chose to stick pretty close to home in writing about his own clan — the middle class WASPs and their many ways, as parent, son, daughter, professional writer, wife, country club member, traveler, lover, husband. His first handful of plays were written while he was still teaching at MIT, but when The Cocktail Hour had a substantial financial success, he put aside his cap and gown and became a productive member of the Dramatists Guild.
His most produced plays are The Cocktail Hour, The Dining Room, Love Letters (soon to be with us again, this time on Broadway with an alternating cast of star names) and Sylvia. His most recent new play is Family Furniture which the Flea Theatre presented only last season. Now it’s time for a second look at some of the earlier works, and the Signature, in its attractive home at the Pershing Square Signature Center way out on the western end of 42nd Street, has mounted a first rate revival of 1977’s The Wayside Motor Inn.
To have a fresh look at this play, he chose to work with a director new to New York, a lady with an impressive reputation in the regional theatres from South Coast Rep to Berkeley Rep to the Studio Theatre in D.C. and a half dozen others. Her name: Lila Neugebauer and she is making what appears to be her New York debut with this controlled and well focused company of fine actors who seem to be simply behaving, not acting at all. And that’s acting of the highest order.
Borrowing a page from the imaginative time-altering and non-linear plays of Alan Ayckbourn, whose work Mr. Gurney has always admired, he has set this play in five rooms at a perfectly ordinary motor inn called the Wayside, set just outside of Boston, in the late 1970s. The revival does not update it, for many of its values as well as the character components reflect its time period so that even a group of ten does not include a black or Asian or Muslim or Hispanic character.
But that was Mr. Gurney’s world, the one he examined again and again, just as Mr. Ayckbourn focused on the eccentric, but reasonably normal middle class Brits of The Norman Conquests, Absurd Person Singular and forty or fifty other plays. Ms. Neugebauer loved the play, empathized with its characters and seems to have known how to communicate her wishes so what’s up there on stage at the small Griffin Theatre of the Signature Complex is clear and honest and smooth.
The gimmick of five stories all being played out at the same time in the same set, which represents the five rooms that each playlet occupies, is never made confusing. We follow the various stories of father and son, two young would-be lovers, an aging couple on the way to visit their newly born grandchild, a traveling salesman and a waitress, and a couple having marital troubles over the need for the husband to move to a new job in a new city. It takes talent, skill, craft, experience and patience to handle the complications this sort of mélange requires, and all of that is on display here.
My only problem with the play, skillfully done as it is, is that the characters themselves are ordinary; their problems are the little ones that become threatening when there is nothing extraordinary in their lives. For an older gent who has a strong independent streak to constantly freeze with frustration because his wife fusses over him, to meet a controlling father who desperately wants his son to be accepted at Harvard even at the cost of paying no attention to the boy’s clear aversion to that idea, to concern oneself with the personal problems wrought when a husband chooses to move to a new city to accommodate his new job, when two youngsters make furtive stabs at their first sexual experience, when a traveling salesman of no particular personality puts the make on a motel waitress — Well, when Grand Hotel used the same formula to introduce us to an internationally acclaimed ballerina who wanted “to be alone”, to a stenographer who longed for a larger life, to an entrepreneur of size, to a little guy who is determined to live just once before his impending premature death, to a déclassé nobleman who is desperate to uphold his reputation — and they too, like Mr. Gurney’s folks, are all visiting the same hotel at the same time — but they are larger, more intriguing characters, and our interest in them is proportionately higher as a result.
The cast of the Gurney play couldn’t be better. Mark Kudisch, temporarily turning to a straight play instead of the musicals in which we usually find him, is fine as the unobservant domineering male who loves his son but hasn’t a clue who that boy really is.
The young Will Pullen is touching as the lad torn between duty and remaining faithful to his own needs. Jon DeVries and Lizbeth Mackay have found ways to enrich the older couple with small touches, but when we examine them closely, they are the Bickersons who in a long life together are still at the “Frank, you should take a nap” and “Stop fussing over me!” stage of their relationship. So it goes with Quincy Dunn-Baker and Jenn Lyon as the salesman and the waitress. Ms. Lyon in particular has a special quality of firmness and vulnerability that reminds of me the young Nina Ariadne and their story is believable but as a story, unspecial. The young lovers and the couple who are having difficulty sorting their priorities are well played too. But I felt as though I were marching down the corridor of the motel, stopping to listen at each doorway and being exposed to accurate dialogue about personal matters that were none of my business, and not much of my interest.
A man of A.R. Gurney’s (known to most as “Pete Gurney”) taste and talent deserves to be revived and produced because he’s left for posterity a pretty good picture of what was once the character of the American scene, from the Industrial revolution until just about the period of this play. Mr. Gurney himself seems to be saying that this way of life is on its way out, and quotes from the bible: “Some seed fell by the wayside and the fowls came and devoured them up.” I don’t think he named his Motor Inn the Wayside by accident. The world is constantly changing, and Mr. Gurney’s was too.
In this charming and crafty play, he may well have chosen small stories to illustrate his theme that nothing lasts forever. There is always hope, says he, and as his play ends and one character is dying, a new baby briefly enters the motel and the torch is passed.
Mr. Gurney was present at the performance I attended. He was surrounded in the intermission by family and friends, and he seemed to be enjoying himself enormously. He deserved to be — he’s had, and is having, a remarkable career; this play may be minor but it is still most worthy and welcome.
The Wayside Motor Inn is onstage until October 5, 2014 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W 42nd St, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.