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EYE ON THEATRE
An Inn Worthy of Patronage

By JOHN SIMON

 

We come now to A. R. Gurney, whose umpteenth play, “The Wayside Motor Inn,” is currently on view at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Gurney is surely one of our three best living American playwrights, more prolific than Donald Margulies and not written out like Edward Albee.

The one possible cavil with Gurney is that he is too much of a specialist, with a narrow focus on his solid American heritage and its genteel exponents. He is from Buffalo and a firmly bourgeois background, writing about a stable, or even staid, respectably upper-middle-class milieu. He has it all impeccably in his grasp, but there is not the exotic poeticism of Tennessee Williams, the tormented earnestness of Eugene O’Neill, or the edgy Jewishness of Arthur Miller. Unjustly, he tends to fall into critical cracks.

In “The Wayside Motor Inn”—the title, minus the motor, derives from a poem by Longfellow, which is mentioned in the play, and lends itself to the fact that it is located in a motel just outside Boston. There is, after all, a strong similarity between Boston with its long-gone Brahmins, and Buffalo with its equally long-gone nabobs.

To be sure, Gurney has here appropriated a device from the wonderful British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, with characters in different places in reality squooshed together into the same stage space--in this case, five separate rooms of the same  shoddy motel perceived as one. Here Gurney deploys his characters with consummate strategy, managing not to get them in one another’s hair. Still, there may be a certain manipulativeness in that the five couples each belong squarely to one of five consecutive decades.

The oldest couple are Frank and Jessie, in their sixties. They have driven to this motel because their daughter Joanie is, on top of her other children, nursing a new baby, and there is no room for guests. The further problem is that Frank has a weak heart, subject to attacks, and may drop dead any moment, despite carrying on valiantly, and vigorously proclaiming his loathing of airplanes and hospitals, while his spouse gushes about wanting to cradle the new grandchild.

I skip the fifties for the moment, to note the forties as represented by Andy and Ruth, in the early process of a divorce. He is a doctor and she has an unspecified job, not to mention care of their several children. After fourteen years of marriage, for reasons voiced only by Andy, they are splitting, he now working at a hospital in Pittsburgh. Ruth comes to discuss how to divide their possessions, a confrontation leading to surprising results.

The thirties are embodied by Ray, a fairly high-powered, married traveling salesman for some major firm. He gets around much and seems to have one-night stands, his marriage, we are able to gather, being a shaky one, with each partner harboring suspicions of the other, in the case of the unseen wife clearly justified. In the play’s most amusing scenes, he flirts with Sharon, a tough, divorced, and wonderfully outspoken waitress who drolly badmouths the food she serves, e.g., “The pie there is just crap in a crust.” She is a naively dedicated socialist, who firmly believes that everything in the world, including this inn, is owned by malefic international conglomerates. She and Ray may have met previously, and may or may not have a fling this time.

Something more than a fling unites two college kids in their twenties, Phil and Sally, who have come to the inn to shack up unmolested for a night. But all kinds of misgivings ensue, Sally having brought along her homework, Jane Eyre, and Phil having bought The Joy of Sex,  whose teachings he hopes to emulate, but Sally deems disgusting.

The fifties are represented by a different kind of couple. Vince, 50, is a working-class father who has grown affluent and hopes to get his son, Mark, admitted to Harvard, which Vince idolizes as only a former state-educated poor boy can. Mark, however, wants a year off to work at a garage with cars, which are his passion, as Harvard is anything but. Their conflict, ably conveyed by the playwright, is delightfully dramatic.

Each of these couples has its difficulties. For Frank and Jessie, it is his endangered heart and her tiresome solicitude; for Andy and Ruth, it is their impending divorce, which both really fear; for Ray it is how to bed Sharon; for Phil and Sally, it is her ambivalence about sex in a motel and her unease about Phil’s possibly insufficient respect; and for Vince it is his son’s unwillingness to wear an Ivy Leagueish pink shirt his father would force upon him, and all the conflict that engenders.

It is too bad that the particular stage is not quite wide enough to encompass a balcony (only implied but not seen) on which much of Vince’s mooning about Harvard, which he thinks he can glimpse, takes place. Otherwise Andrew Lieberman’s moderately garish set is just right, including wallpaper of a different sort than specified in the script, but just as awful. Kaye Voyce’s costumes are just right, too, as is the excellent cast.

They are too numerous for detailed description, but all praise to the men (Quincy Dunn-Baker, John DeVries, Marc Kudish, Will Pullen, David McElwee and Kelly AuCoin), and to the women (Lizbeth Mackay, Ismenia Medes, Rebecca Henderson and Jenn Lyon). Under Lila Neugebauer’s savvy direction, they form a genuine ensemble.

If the play lacks the ultimate greatness, it nevertheless displays exquisite intelligence and craft, proving that even in the absence of supreme genius, professionalism can be vastly enjoyable, and is hereby heartily recommended.

 

John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. To learn more, visit the www.JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.

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