The Wayside Motor Inn: In brief
The Signature's season of A.R. Gurney begins with a revival of the playwright's 1978 portrait of ten travelers at a motel near Boston. Lila Neugebauer's cast includes Marc Kudisch, Lizbeth MacKay, Jon DeVries, Rebecca Henderson and Kelly AuCoin.
The Wayside Motor Inn: Theater review by David Cote
In the past century of playwriting, there must be nearly as many plays set in hotels as in dysfunctional households. No surprise there: Hotels come with built-in drama—sleazy affairs, folks on the run, depraved criminality (or, if you’re Tracy Letts, all of the above). Veteran scribe A.R. Gurney understands the sad, generic allure of the rented room, and he quintuples the possibilities in his ingenious 1977 play, The Wayside Motor Inn. In this technical feat, he crams ten characters into the same room…sort of.
In the title motel, located outside Boston, five separate parties check in around the same time, but in different rooms. Gurney’s structural conceit is to superimpose the story lines (plus visits from a mouthy maid drolly played by Jenn Lyon) on a single space, letting pauses in conversation be filled by other characters’ dialogue. Director Lila Neugebauer and her cast must keep up the dramatic tension and move characters plausibly about the space without them colliding.
If such a stunt works—and it really does—the visual and thematic overlap evokes a modern-day “seven ages” of man and woman, rich in evocative echoes and contrasts: a newborn baby, an elderly man (Jon DeVries) maybe at the edge of death, two virginal young lovers (David McElwee, Ismenia Mendes) and a divorced couple (Kelly AuCoin, Rebecca Henderson) at each other’s throats. These are just a few of the bittersweet slices of life.
The ensemble is excellent and meshes together seamlessly. Besides the aforementioned cast members, Marc Kudisch and Will Pullen are touching as an overbearing, status-obsessed father and his son, whom he's bullying to attend Harvard. Quincy Dunn-Baker’s macho traveling salesman is a finely shaded study in loneliness and pride. The stories themselves might not be terribly original in isolation, but intercutting among disparate lives creates marvelous sympathetic resonance. And of course, Gurney is a first-rate writer of rueful, well-observed banter, a true craftsman.
Equally well-wrought is the queasily brown-plaid room (by Andrew Lieberman), the sickly indoor and more healthful outdoor lighting (Tyler Micoleau) and the period costumes (Kate Voyce), which range from frumpy to disco-tastic. If the visuals strike a faintly depressing note, these fine folks have done their jobs. You come away from this rich, satisfying revival thinking that motel rooms often look alike, but every occupant has a unique story.—Theater review by David Cote
THE BOTTOM LINE We loved our stay at A.R. Gurney’s hotel play.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote