A.R. Gurney has been one of our most prolific and celebrated playwrights for over half a century. He has never been a Broadway playwright (who is these days?), but his work has been a constant presence Off- and Off-off Broadway, most recently at the Flea Theatre. For the most part, Gurney writes about upper-class and uppper-middle-class people, the privileged, who feel lost in the new postwar America. His domestic dramas seldom have events that would seem momentous outside of the rooms in which they take place, but are momentous for the characters.
THE WAYSIDE MOTOR INN, one of Gurney's most formally interesting plays, was first produced in 1977. The critics didn't like it. Looking at it in this fine, perfectly cast, lovingly directed production, one can see the plays strengths. The Wayside Motor Inn is a motel outside of Boston. Gurney gives us the occupants of five rooms in this hotel on one afternoon and evening. We see the all the characters and their interactions in the same room. Gurney has said that he was intrigued by writing something like a 19th century Italian opera. In opera, a number of characters can express themselves simultaneously. THE WAYSIDE MOTOR INN is a complex concertate of overlapping conversations. An older couple has come to see their new grandchild. The husband knows he is dying of heart disease while his wife is more focussed on seeing the new child that has come into the world. A father has brought his son for a Harvard interview. The father, a self-made man, has dreamed of his son taking the next step into the upper-middle class. The son has other ideas and finally stands up to his father. A separated couple try to negotiate the breakup of their fourteen year marriage. A couple of college kids negotiate their first sexual experience. A married businessman attempts to bed the hotels's countercultural waitress. None of these stories is particularly original, but the tapestry Gurney weaves out of them is. Most of these characters hate being in this impersonal space, a nowhere. They feel unmoored there, uncomfortable, claustrophobic. Yet the space frees them to say things to the person they are with that they might not say in their home environment. We see the rifts between people who should be close: husband and wife, father and son. At the end, we're given a poetic theatrical image. A naked young couple is having their first sexual experience as a grandmother shows her new grandchild to her dying husband. The life cycle enacted before our eyes.
Gurney's language is appropriate to characters who aren't good at expressing their emotions. People talk to keep other people away as much as to bring them closer. Small symbolic gestures become important, like a father trying to mend his son's shirt after ripping it in an Oedipal spat.
As is usually the case at the Signature, the production, directed by Lila Neugebauer, is pitch-perfect. Designer Andrew Liebermann has given us a photo-realistic motel room in all it's bad taste (oh, that wallpaper!) and efficiency. This is a difficult play to direct, with sometimes eight characters sharing the same space, but supposedly the only people in that space. Neugebauer's production is superbly choreographed. More important, there's not a false moment in the acting. This is ensemble theatre at its best.
I look forward to the next two Gurney revivals at the Signature.
THE WAYSIDE MOTOR INN by A.R. Gurney. Signature Theatre Griffin Theatre. August 12, 2014.