01 October 2014

'Wayside Motor Inn'

I had a busy month of theater in September, starting on Friday, the 12th, in New York City.  That’s the evening I saw A. R. Gurney’s The Wayside Motor Inn at the Signature Theatre Company on Theatre Row, my first play of the new season (and of my 2014-15 subscription to STC).  In the following weeks, I saw a revival of Sam Shepard’s 1983 Fool for Love at the Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland; Belleville, the 2011 play by Amy Herzog at Washington’s Studio Theatre; and at the end of the month, last season’s Best Musical Tony-winner, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder on Broadway.  (There will, of course, be blog reports on all of these on ROT as soon as I can write them!)

The first play in Gurney’s Residency One tenure at Signature, The Wayside Motor Inn, started previews in the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center on 12 August.  It opened on 4 September and was originally set to close on 21 September but has been extended twice now to 5 October.  The play premièred in New York at the Manhattan Theatre Club in November 1977 for a four-week run (described as a workshop).  Most reviews were unavailable on line, but I read that its “effect was very unsatisfactory” and that it “failed to catch fire.”  Gurney himself has admitted wryly, “I don't think the audience or the critics thought it was as brilliant a play as I thought it was.”  

Albert Ramsdell Gurney, Jr., just shy of 84, is a Buffalo native who’s made a career of writing about American WASP’s.  Known as A. R. Gurney professionally (and, inexplicably, “Pete” to his friends), his best-known plays include The Dining Room (1982), The Cocktail Hour (1988), and Love Letters (1989; opened 18 September for a Broadway revival with a rotating cast of stars beginning with Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow), but he’s been writing for the theater professionally since 1968 when he composed The David Show.  His earliest actual script, however, was Love in Buffalo (1958), the first musical produced at the Yale School of Drama, where Gurney studied from 1956 to 1958, after a hitch in the Navy.  (At Williams College, which he attended from 1948 to 1952, Gurney wrote revues for the student theater, taking over the musical presentations begun by older schoolmate Stephen Sondheim.)  After getting his MFA from Yale, Gurney got a job teaching literature at MIT (where he remained on the faculty for 25 years), and he wrote several short plays there in the 1960s and ’70s.  He moved to New York City in 1982, “with The Dining Room under my arm,” to pursue playwriting full time.  

Many of Gurney’s earlier plays weren’t terribly well received by the press.  Of The David Show (Players Theatre), Gurney told the late playwright Romulus Linney, a Yale Drama schoolmate, that Clive Barnes, then the theater reviewer of the New York Times, wrote in “a famous review” that “Gurney writes like a caterpillar with gloves on.”  Then came Gurney’s breakout play, The Dining Room, presented by Playwrights Horizons.  One of the most prolific American dramatists, Gurney has written over 50 plays in his nearly half century in the biz.  

Now, I should probably confess here that I’ve never been a great fan of Gurney’s plays.  I just find them unengaging (maybe because WASP’s just aren’t all that theatrical—LOL).  I make one exception for Sylvia (Manhattan Theatre Club, 1995), perhaps the best play ever written about a dog (played in the première by Sarah Jessica Parker)!  (You may have to be a dog-lover to appreciate Sylvia completely, but I was on the floor in the aisle through most of the performance.)  The last Gurney play I saw was Buffalo Gal (Primary Stages, 2008) in which Susan Sullivan, now most recognizable as Martha Rodgers, the mother of the crime novelist Rick Castle on the ABC-TV series Castle, played Amanda, an actress from Buffalo (Gurney’s own hometown, not coincidentally) who returns to a local theater to play Madame Ranevskaya in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.  In my (pre-ROT) report on the production, I wrote: “It’s not a great play—probably won’t go down in the canon of theater literature as a significant play—but it works on stage and was very enjoyable.”  

(Two years after this revised Buffalo Gal played at Primary Stages— earlier versions dated back to 2000—Gurney wrote The Grand Manner, his homage to an actual native Buffalo actress, Katharine Cornell, with whom he’d had a theater encounter when he was 17.  The play was premièred by the Lincoln Center Theater in June 2010 with Kate Burton as The First Lady of the American Stage and Boyd Gaines as her husband, director Guthrie McClintic.  Like Primary Stages’ Buffalo Gal, Grand Manner was staged by Mark Lamos.)

The Wayside Motor Inn is set in the titular motel outside Boston in the late 1970s, when accouterments like instant-coffee makers and “magic fingers” massagers in the beds were innovations to compliment the color TV’s in the rooms and the air conditioners.  Ten people—three couples, a father and son, a traveling salesman, and a room-service waitress— have all found their ways to the motel for different reasons.  They all have difficulties communicating with their partners, some on trivial grounds—the salesman tries to hook up with the waitress, but they’re just on different wavelengths—some on more serious ones—a middle-aged couple is splitting up and can’t come to terms on even the smallest bits of their shared life and the father is obsessed with getting his son into Harvard while the young man wants to go to state college and work on car engines in a garage.  In fact, a plea repeated by Frank, the husband in a 60-ish couple and who has a “bum ticker,” iterates the theme of play: “I just want someone to listen to my heart.”  He means it literally, but Gurney seems to intend us to take it as a metaphor for the five pairs of people in the motel room.  

All of this plays out in short bursts of interwoven scenes over the course of two hours as the visitors come and go in the mid-century-modern room with a balcony.  There are the tiniest and entirely inconsequential overlaps of the pairs’ stories—the older man needs a doctor and phones the one in the divorce scenario, though the doctor’s not in his room when the call’s made; the college couple using the room for a romantic and sexual getaway meet the waitress from the salesman episode, but off stage in the motel’s diner; the older woman gives the father a needle and thread to mend his son’s torn shirt (the only time a character from one scenario actually meets one from another pair on stage)—but for the most part, the stories weave in and out among the five pairs without ever really intertwining.

But this isn’t California Suite with WASP’s or even Separate Tables at the Motel Diner because the room in the set is really five different rooms occupying the same site in time and space.  (Okay, it’s not StarTrek Motel, either.)  The 10 occupants and visitors to the room(s) all inhabit the set simultaneously from our point of view, but are in different rooms at different times from theirs.  They don’t interact or respond to one another beyond each character’s dramatic partner.  It’s a very elaborate dramaturgical gimmick requiring careful staging (by Lila Neugebauer) and acting as well as delicate handling of the dialogue composition on Gurney’s part.  (In not a few instances, a line by a character in one pairing bisects a line in another couple’s scene like the dialogue in a Robert Altman film; think Nashville or A Wedding.  It’s easier to accomplish on film, I’d imagine.)  So, in Wayside Motor Inn, we watch five independent scenes unfold concurrently—and I found that this tactic made it very hard work to follow the characters (whom my theater companion, Diane, and I had to spend some of the intermission to sort out by name from the program) and their separate narratives, which tended to get jumbled up, at least in my head.  In the end, Wayside Motor Inn strikes me as a lot of work (for both artists and audience) for inconsequential reward—intellectual or theatrical.  

Gurney has said that his inspiration for Wayside’s structure was the plays of Alan Ayckbourn, most of which incorporate some kind of structural gimmick.  (Consider How the Other Half Loves, in which Ayckbourn tells two stories in the same setting at the same time.)  He also said that the idea came to him from certain Italian operas in which several characters are all on stage singing about different things at the same time (think of Verdi’s Falstaff, in which eight characters in four pairs do this for two scenes) and Gurney wondered if that effect could be achieved with words and plot in a play.  Both Gurney and director Neugebauer have also said that the play was an effort to examine how separate lives collide and we don’t really notice.  The problems with all these impulses, at least for me, is that, one: the lives in Wayside don’t actually collide—they barely pass in the night; two: I don’t much like Alan Ayckbourn’s plays (I stopped going to them after I went to one of The Norman Conquests trilogy, on Broadway in 1975, and didn’t return for the rest); and three: I’m also not a fan of opera!  That all kinda leaves me out, so what’s a guy to do?

What’s more, I found the structural gimmick to be more central than any theme or idea Gurney may have had.  Gurney himself writes of Wayside Motor Inn

The play asks its audience to watch a juggler—me, the playwright—toss five plots into the air, letting them only occasionally touch each other, and it may be a game an audience isn’t especially interested in playing.  In any case, as the headline of one review tersely put it, “Inn falls by wayside.”

The playwright even seems to have diagnosed his own problem:

So maybe I have to categorize The Wayside Motor Inn as what the scholar John Gassner, who taught playwriting at the Yale School of Drama, would call “a notion play,” where the drama is drowned in what seemed to the author like an ingenious concept.

(I hesitate to quote a reviewer at great length in my performance reports, but Jesse Green of New York magazine offered a perhaps telling explanation of the Wayside’s structural origin.  I can’t corroborate this report, so I’ll cite Green in toto on the assumption that he’s got some reliable source for his information:

The history of The Wayside Motor Inn features a similar wrinkle.  The original production, a 20-performance workshop at Manhattan Theater Club, was directed by Tony Giordano, who, in a self-published memoir, claims to have been the source of the play’s distinctive concept.  In the original script, he writes, the five stories took place separately in front of five separate flats.  Giordano not only combined them, but told Gurney that if he didn’t rewrite the dialogue, it “would be no match for the dangerous theatricality of my staging.”  I’m not sure what “danger” Giordano refers to; the simultaneity of the stories wasn’t then and surely isn’t now a shocking novelty.  Gurney, without ever mentioning Giordano’s putative contribution, admits as much, citing Ayckbourn’s How the Other Half Loves from 1969 as the kind of influence to which The Wayside Motor Inn “succumbed.”  Perhaps Ayckbourn’s plays “work so well because his characters learn to deal with the restrictions he puts on them,” Gurney surmises on his website, “whereas Americans, whether playwrights, actors, or audiences, may be more interested in breaking through restrictions than in playing with them.”

(Green added that he found Gurney’s rationalization for the failure of the workshop production of Wayside by blaming the actors and audiences a “sweeping generalization.”)

As for the STC production of Wayside, let me quote myself (!).  In my 2008 report on Buffalo Gal, I remarked: “If it weren’t a master craftsman like Gurney, with a terrific cast and sure-handed director, it would have fallen apart in the first scene.”  That’s equally true here.  Gurney has an eye for the little, telling details of everyday life which, in this case, limn the middle-class world of the 1970s.  He also has an ear for ordinary speech, especially the short bursts in which most of us communicate (or try to but fail).  Only characters on stage or screen really talk in long speeches, and Gurney catches the rhythm of . . . well, not exactly “street speech,” but . . . ummm “motel-room speech.”  Even the overlapping lines sound organic.

But as a slice-of-1970s-life, Wayside Motor Inn has some hitches.  Perhaps back in the ’70s the topics of concern to Gurney’s characters were the stuff of drama, but 40 years on, they’re not so evocative anymore.  The controlling father; the boy who wants to be a mechanic; the young couple making their first steps to sexual intimacy; the bitter, divorcing couple; the old man keeping his weak heart from his wife—we’ve seen all that dozens of times, even in TV series now.  It’s no longer news, and it’s no longer terribly dramatic or theatrical.  Vince, the bullying father, reads in a motel brochure that that there were “some big battles around here in the Revolutionary War . . . .  A lot of blood was spilled”—intimating that battles will be fought at the Wayside Motor Inn.  The problem is that this isn’t revolutionary and the conflicts are pretty much skirmishes at most.  

That leaves Gurney’s structural gimmick as the only theatrical element of note and that can’t carry a two-hour, 10-character play, no matter how well handled it all is by the director and cast.  As a piece of theater, Wayside Motor Inn ends up being little more than a curiosity and I wonder what made James Houghton, Signature’s founding artistic director, select it (out of the dramatist’s 50+ scripts) for the launch of Gurney’s residency.  (The playwright acknowledged that Houghton had proposed both Wayside Motor Inn and his next play at STC, 1981’s What I Did Last Summer, for the residency season and that Gurney acquiesced to the artistic director’s arguments despite his own doubts that “those plays would quite stand up.”  In the New York Observer, Harry Haun reported that Gurney “actually tried to waylay The Wayside Motor Inn, but Mr. Houghton insisted . . . .”)

So, what about the STC production?  I can’t compare this revival with the original mounting in 1977, so I can’t judge the presentation from that perspective.  (At least one reviewer, Linda Winer of Newsday, did and found the new version worthier: “Dismissed as too confusing in 1977, ‘The Wayside Motor Inn’ uncovers in this revival an altogether lucid, compelling and entertaining work . . . .”)  As far as I’m concerned, it’s still confusing, but I’ll accept the assessment that Neugebauer and her cast have kept the stage action from becoming chaotic to the point that I couldn’t glean what was going on—even if it was, as I said, a lot of work.  (This accomplishment may have been aided, too, by the passage of theatrical time: maybe we’re more used to multiple actions, non-linear narratives, and verbal cacophony from our stages now.)  As an acting and directing tour de force, STC’s Wayside is a stunning effort, well worth the $25 ticket price of the subsidized regular run (though perhaps not the $65-75 the extension will cost).  

Readers of ROT will know that I was briefly an actor myself, and, knowing what I know, I’m astounded at the delicate and intricate work of Neugebauer with the blocking, timing, pacing, and character differentiation her ensemble all exhibits.  Not to forget the level of concentration and focus the actors have to sustain.  Gurney wrote of a juggling act that he performed in writing Wayside, but the juggling and acrobatic show the company puts on is far more impressive to my eye.  Just as a technical achievement, STC’s Wayside Motor Inn is noteworthy.

The writing aside, all of the actors present pitch-perfect interpretations of Gurney’s creations.  In order to reduce the complexity, the playwright says, “I tried to make the evening comprehensible by making the different stories occurring in this room fairly simple and straightforward.”  The same’s true of the characters, reduced to one or two salient traits that render them essentially two-dimensional.  Within that limitation, the actors all portray recognizably human personas—in the vein, perhaps, of a well-written and -directed television series; they’re not complex—this isn’t Ibsen or Chekhov, much less Shakespeare, after all—but they don’t drop to the level of cardboard or cartoon characters.  In my estimation, it’s the directing and acting that get the lion’s share of the credit for this; it would have been easy to play these folks as clichés, but no one does.

Since I can’t single out individual performances to praise (or criticize) above the rest, I’ll list the whole dectet as a way of acknowledging their excellence.  Ray, the weary salesman looking for a little romance to alleviate the loneliness of the road, is Quincy Dunn-Baker; Frank and Jessie, a couple in their 60’s visiting their married daughter, are Jon DeVries (especially fine) and Lizbeth Mackay; Vince and Mark, the domineering father and his quietly independent son in town for a Harvard interview, are Marc Kudisch and Will Pullen (very nice); Phil and Sally, the 20-something collegians seeking a weekend of romance and sex, are David McElwee and Ismenia Mendes; Andy and Ruth, the angry doctor and his furious estranged wife on their way to a divorce, are Kelly AuCoin and Rebecca Henderson; and Sharon, the motel waitress with whom Ray tries to connect, is Jenn Lyon (a way with outrageous statements her character thinks are common sense).  If Vince is a little too one-notish and oblivious as the overbearing dad and Sharon’s a tad too stereotypically ex-hippie-ish, that’s not the fault of the actors, who all manage to make Gurney’s predictable characters warm and alive even if only for the two hours of our acquaintance.  If I haven’t made it clear, let me state it bluntly: it’s the performances that make the evening worth experiencing.

The physical production, too, is top notch.  Kaye Voyce’s costumes evokes not only the individual characters with subtlety, but the period with accuracy and aptness.  Only the peasant dress and boots of Ruth, the enraged wife of the doctor, screams ’70s; all the other clothes—slightly flared pants cuffs, shirts with long collars, wide ties, fitted sweaters—are just on the nose.  Tyler Micoleau’s lighting maintains the impersonality and aggressive charmlessness of the Wayside’s room as designed with spot-on coldness and anonymousness by Andrew Lieberman.  If, as Gurney asserts, the motel room “stands as a generalizing image of transitory American life” as a matrix to explore “the impersonality and, too often, the futility of modern American life,” Lieberman’s set, with the tan, plaid wallpaper; the orange chenille bedspreads; and reproduction colonial-style furniture, nails it—not seedy or shabby, but hideous in its own way.  (The wooden hangars in the clothes rack are fastened to the rod.)

(It took me a while to locate it, but I found the Wayside review Gurney mentions above.  It was in the New York Times of 12 November 1977 and was written by Richard Eder.  The headline was “‘Motor Inn’ Play Falls by the Wayside,” and Eder said, “The five vignettes are essentially ordinary, but Mr. Gurney has treated them with an accomplished humor, pathos or irony.  Sometimes the treatment overcomes the ordinariness, and sometimes it does not.”  Eder continued that Gurney’s structural device was “suggesting more than it represents” and that “while making no real point of either the proximity of all these different people or their mutual unawareness, the device becomes distracting.  More often than not, it drains life from the individual vignettes.”) 

I couldn’t track the overall press response in 1977, which might have proved interesting, but the reviews this time out were generally positive, if a little mixed.  In her Newsday review, Linda Winer went on to state that STC’s Wayside Motor Inn is “[d]irected with subtle delicacy and clarity by Lila Neugebauer,” imparting “many memorable moments.”  Terry Teachout wrote in the Wall Street Journal that while “every member of the ensemble cast makes a bold impression,” his final analysis was: “It all adds up to an intelligent comedy lightly dappled with the dark shadows of fate.”  In the New York Times, Charles Isherwood, calling Wayside “a minor-key but cleverly constructed play,” pronounced that Gurney’s “concept is more complicated and more avant-garde in theory than in practice.”  Despite “the nicely choreographed direction of Lila Neugebauer—and a fine cast,” Isherwood reported, “none of the story lines are particularly stirring, or, for that matter, original.”  “I’m not sure anyone could have completely resuscitated” Wayside Motor Inn, began Brendan Lemon of the Financial Times, who continued that “the play is neither strong enough in conception to challenge our notions of narrative nor ingenious enough in resolution to provide us with more conventional pleasures.”  Remarking that all the characters are unhappy in one way or another, Lemon added that “alas, it’s not very affecting misery.”  The simultaneity of the narratives, he concluded, “is a conceit that quite quickly pales.”

In the Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz opened with: “So many stock characters show up at ‘The Wayside Motor Inn’ that you wish you could hang a No Vacancy sign.  And then get room service to get rid of the overstated themes.”  Then he backed off slightly, acknowledging: “Fortunately, though, top-notch performances keep you from requesting an early check-out . . . .”  Gurney, wrote Dziemianowicz, “makes his points.  Then he pounds them.”  In the end, the Newsman noted, “10 terrific performances hold you tight” even in the face of “the script’s lack of subtlety.”  Elisabeth Vincentelli wrote in the New York Post that the “somewhat obscure” script “is well served by Lila Neugebauer’s fluid staging,” even though “[s]ome of the subplots fare better than others.”  The Post reviewer concluded, however, that “despite the good cast’s efforts, it’s tough to care for the characters, who don’t transcend the willfully banal events.”  She warned, “The show has compelling moments, but you may find yourself glancing at your watch, waiting for checkout.”

In New York, Jesse Green complained “that what mild frissons the play does offer come from its externalities.  It’s the jamming together of the stories, not the stories themselves” that provide any interest.  “The stories are, in themselves, banal,” said the reviewer.  Rather than “a means to an end,” as Ayckbourn’s “narrative novelties and structural tricks” are, Green asserted, “Gurney’s are, too often, a means to a means.”  Nonetheless, despite the play’s “failings,” the New York review-writer acknowledged, “I’m almost reluctant to report that The Wayside Motor Inn nevertheless plays like gangbusters,” due largely to “the traffic-cop direction of Lila Neugebauer” and the “excellent job” done by the ensemble.  (Like me, Green seems to have wondered why STC chose to present this script out of the dozens Gurney has on hand.)  In the New Yorker, the capsule review in “Goings on about Town” stated, “The situations are familiar, but the visual conceit is nifty,” which forced “the director, Lila Neugebauer, and her actors to execute some very nimble choreography.”  Commenting on the unsurprising “lack of diversity,” the reviewer concluded, “There isn’t much to move you to care about these people, but most of the performances are so fine . . . that, when checkout time comes, it’s hard to leave.”  

“The stories themselves might not be terribly original in isolation,” acknowledged David Cote in Time Out New York, but he continued that “intercutting among disparate lives creates marvelous sympathetic resonance.”  It’s a “rich, satisfying revival,” summed up Cote, wrought by “a first-rate writer of rueful, well-observed banter, a true craftsman.”  Wayside Motor Innjust might be the most un-Gurney Gurney play you’ll ever see,” quipped Entertainment Weekly reviewer Melissa Rose Bernardo, adding, “which makes Wayside all the more captivating.”  Of the content, though, Bernardo declared, “We learn just enough about each of them to be intrigued . . . but after two hours, we’re pretty much ready to check out.”

In contrast to the 1977 flop, Pete Hempstead wrote on TheaterMania that today’s audiences will “probably find Signature Theatre's new production not only comprehensible but riveting,” resulting, thanks also to “top-notch performances,” in “an engrossing two hours of theater.”  Hempstead praised Neugebauer’s directing as she “orchestrates all the overlapping stories into a kind of human fugue.”  The TM writer finished by suggesting that the STC revival “propels The Wayside Motor Inn into the ranks of Gurney’s best,” pointing out that, unlike the contemporary audiences of 1977, “[s]ometimes when we look back from a distance, we’re ready to see ourselves.”  Admitting that the staging of Waysidefits like the carpentering on an exquisite piece of furniture,” David Finkle admonished on Huffington Post, “Like that beautifully carpentered piece of furniture, The Wayside Motor Inn sits on the stage inert for too much of the time.”  Finkle blamed this outcome on the fact that Gurney “doesn’t go far enough with” the Ayckbourn-like “conceit.”  “Not only that,” added the HP reviewer, “his characters aren’t sufficiently engaging.”  

Heaping praise on the acting and directing—“among the highest levels New York has to offer”—as well as the production design, Talkin’ Broadway’s Matthew Murray went on to compliment Gurney’s overall concept and his notion that he “can make the ordinary seem somehow extraordinary, just as several simple melodies enhance each other when they are interwoven in a musical ensemble piece.”  But at the end of his notice, Murray demurred that “I’m not sure he entirely achieves” his “lofty goal.”  Murray still believed that the concept is a good one, then added, “But it never quite adds up to as much as it feels like it should.”  Despite what he saw as a stumble at the end, however, the reviewer insisted that that “is not enough to cause The Wayside Motor Inn to fall by the wayside” (making reference to the Eder pan of the 1977 workshop).  

If Talkin’ Broadway’s Murray seems a little conflicted, then Elyse Sommer on Curtain Up was beside herself.  In one breath, she wrote, “The playwright’s 70s America spin on the Ayckb[o]urn theatrical juggling style works,” with the assistance of a “stellar cast” and “able” direction, and then asserted, “Sure it’s all something of a gimmick and without that gimmick there’d be little connection or novelty” in the proceedings.  

It looks as if I came down right in the middle of the consensus: the production, both the design work and the performances, were excellent and worth seeing for the theater-minded because good work is always its own reward.  On the other hand, the play’s content was wan and unengaging, even as a look back at Carter-era America, and Gurney’s structural gimmick, while perhaps intellectually interesting in theory, was more enervating than theatrically stimulating.  A friend who’s an opera enthusiast and conversant with Italian culture (his wife, Gabriella, is Italian) described something when I asked him about Gurney’s operatic allusion as a source for the structure of Wayside Motor Inn.  (He outlined two scenes from Verdi’s Falstaff that seem to be exactly what Gurney meant.)  It seems apt: 

Another thing I love about Falstaff is that it’s so perfectly Italian (despite being based on Shakespeare).  Everyone talks at once at the dinner table and in meetings in Italy.  It took me years to be able to do some justice to listening to 2-3 conversations at once in Gabriella’s family and while conducting academic or bureaucratic business in Italy.  You’d think there would be no way that anybody’s listening to what others are saying, but the Italian genius is that they do listen and comprehend while talking themselves.

That sounds so much like what Gurney wrote in The Wayside Motor Inn, except that we are the ones listening, not the other characters, I wonder if he knew about this phenomenon.

1 comment:

  1. Playwright A. R. Gurney died at his home in Manhattan on 13 June 2017 at the age of 86. Also a teacher and novelist, his theater career spanned from 1982 ('The Dining Room')--though he was writing plays for 20 tears before that--to the Broadway revival of 'Sylvia' in 2015. Gurney (who was inexplicably known as Pete to his friends) was the 2014-15 Residency One Playwright at the Signature Theatre Company.