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A CurtainUp Review
The Wayside Motor Inn
By Elyse Sommer
The Wayside Inn hasn't been the sort of critical or crowd pleaser like the plays that established him as America's premier stage interpreter of upper middle class WASP life (The Dining Room, Love Letters or Sylvia). But, thanks to the invaluable Signature's mission of giving its resident playwrights a chance to revisit something old along with something new, Mr. Gurney's Residency One Signature season is giving us a second chance to re-evaluate that rare and rarely produced flop.
And guess what? The playwright's 70s America spin on the Ayckburn theatrical juggling style works. What's more, the stellar cast, ably directed by Lila Neugebauer, has caught the rhythm of the moving in and out of the concurrent scenes in five separate but identical rooms but with everyone interacting on the same one. Their handling of the stop-start conversations escapes the trap of coming off as too artificial and instead teases out the play's poignancy and humor. Sure it's all something of a gimmick and without that gimmick there'd be little connection or novelty about watching ten very ordinary people deal with turning points in their lives at the metaphorically named Wayside Motel.
True to every play at one of the Signature's three theaters, this one is buoyed by fine production values. Andrew Lieberman's charmless but authentically five-in-one 1970s motel room outside Boston isn't peopled with Gurney's usual Ivy League educated WASP characters ripe for his gentle jabs. However, they are typically easy to understand and sympathize with Guerneyland citizens. Even when less than admirable, as is the case with Marc Kudisch's pushy and controlling Vince, they're never really ill-intentioned. Vince genuinely believes what's best for his teen- aged son Mark (Will Pullen). He is the quintessential example of the father who rose out of a hardscrabble background and wants to vicariously make up for what he missed.
The other domestic dramas played out in this hotel on one afternoon and evening involve the usual romantic and marital problems, job burnout, aging and ill health. While except for one instance, no member on one twosome ever talks to the others, and it's increasingly clear that the motel isn't an ideal place to try to work out their difficulties. At some point the push-pull between each set of characters develops into a mini climax.
Vince's frustration with the son reluctant to put his best foot forward for a Harvard admissions interview explodes, as does Mark's despair at not being able to live his own life. The pre-divorce mieeting between Andy (Kelly AuCoin), a doctor, and his wife Ruth (Rebecca Henderson), turns into a shouting match. Even the devoted older couple, Jessie (Lizbeth Mackay) and Frank (Jon DeVries), let their frustration with their present circumstances out, Jess with her dissatisfaction about her empty nest life and he with her fussing over him.
A night in the motel, away from the eyes of roommates fails to work out quite as expected for Sally (Ismenia Mendes) and Phil (David McElwee). While the flirtation of Ray(Quincy Dunn Baker), the traveling salesman with waitress Sharon (Jenn Lyon), an outspoken anti-everything aging hippie falls by (forgive the pun) wayside but Jenn Lyons gets, and deserves, the most laughs during the whole two hours.
Except for the period setting and costumes, none of these interwoven vignettes feels dated (though colitis, from which young Mark suffers is no longer attributed mostly to stress). Essentially familiar as all these characters and their stories are this clever use of the space, frees them from triviality. And of course the actors, from the wonderfully expressive DeVries to the attractive young Mendes and McElwee, make these characters worth getting to know with their smooth interaction and expressive body language.
This must have been a fun but difficult play to write. It's a difficult play to direct and perform, so bravo to all involved for making it all look easy and natural.
Postscript: In addition to the additional Signature plays, one of Gurney's most popular and produced plays, the Pulitzer nominated Love Letters, will finally see his name on a Broadway marquee this season.