A.R. Gurney was surprised at the Signature Theater’s choice for the opening play in his playwright-in-residence season with them.
“The Wayside Motor Inn was dismissed by the critics when it opened, and it’s never really worked before,” Gurney told me in an interview on Howlround.
Whether this 1977 play works now depends on how satisfied you can be by a well-staged production that presents five dramatically underwhelming stories in a theatrically inventive way.
Traveling salesman Ray (Quincy Dunn-Baker) enters a conventionally decorated room in a motel outside Boston, puts down his luggage, makes himself a drink, turns on the TV, calls his office. Suddenly, an elderly couple, Frank and Jessie (Jon DeVries and Lizbeth Mackay) enter the room, having registered as guests on a trip to see their daughter and her newborn child, and sit on the bed.
We see them in the same room, but as characters (we soon figure out) they are in a different albeit identical room in the motel. One by one, three more groups of characters enter different rooms of the motel – but the same set – and their stories unfold simultaneously:
Vince (Marc Kudisch) is taking his son Mark (Will Pullen) for an interview with an alumnus at Harvard University, in a push to get him admitted. But Mark doesn’t want to go; he wants to fix cars. Their feelings pour out in a fight over a pink shirt that Vince wants Mark to wear.
College student Phil (David McElwee) has invited his girlfriend of six months (Sally (Ismenia Mendes) to a night in a motel room in order to consummate their relationship – but she’s not sure she wants to.
Andy (Kelly AuCoin), a doctor who has left his wife and children for a new job out-of-town, gets a room and meets his wife Ruth (Rebecca Henderson) to make arrangements to pick up his stuff. Both intend to be civil, but that doesn’t work out as both intended.
Ray, the married salesman, winds up having a dalliance with Sharon (Jenn Lyon) a room service waitress who is an ex-hippie – and whom, Ray realizes, he met years earlier.
All the actors are first rate, with a particular stand-out Jenn Lyon, who gets the most obviously funny lines. It is a testament to both the director Lila Neugebauer and the playwright that the audience can follow the dialogue even when the couples are talking nearly at once. (It was only when two of the couples were shouting angrily at one another that there was difficulty in discerning precisely what they were saying, although the actual words in those moments didn’t matter so much.) There was also some clever blocking: At one point, the tired divorcing couple full of past regrets, stood at either end of the bed where the energetic college students were together reveling in the future possibilities of their newly-minted relationship. There are even a number of touching moments.
It’s hard to argue that The Wayside Motor Inn adds up to anything more than a trifle. Although all the characters are in the midst of change (many have fallen by the wayside?), there is no great insight into human nature or American culture. Gurney, consciously I think, sacrifices depth for clarity; more complicated and nuanced interactions would surely have gotten lost amid the hubbub.
On the other hand, the set-up does not lead to a wildly chaotic and entertaining farce a la Noises Off. The mechanics of getting the actors on and off the set, and performing within inches of one another, are not dazzling or hilarious. But they are admirable – and one could do much worse (especially at the Signature’s $25 ticket price) than an admirable theatrical exercise.