09/04/2014 06:55 pm ET | Updated Nov 04, 2014

First Nighter: Musicalized 'Red Eye of Love,' Gurney's 'Wayside Motor Inn' Short of Must-Sees

In the revival of The Wayside Motor Inn, A. R. Gurney's 1977 play, at The Pershing Square Signature Center, Ray (Quincy Dunn-Baker) strides onto set designer Andrew Lieberman's amusing take on a Jimmy Carter-era bad-taste motel room. Ray is agitated. Shortly after that, Frank (Jon DeVries) and Jessie (Lizbeth Mackay) come through the door. They're in a quiet tizzy to which Ray doesn't react.

For a second, the effect is confusing, but only for a second. The ah-hah moment quickly hits. Ray, trying to get a business matter settled on the phone, is in one room at the Cambridge establishment; Frank and Jessie, having marital disturbances concerning her distracted nature and his health, are in another.

So when father-son combo Vince (Marc Kudisch) and Mark (Will Pullen), then young unmarried-but-thinking-about-it Phil (David McElwee) and Sally (Ismenia Mendes), then also agitated Andy (Kelly AuCoin) drag their valises into the same space, it's clear they're all in different spaces and not getting onto the twin beds, checking the view from the balcony or using the bathroom together.

They're living out their problems simultaneously in a dramedy that has the feel of an Alan Ayckbourn conceit but as it unfolds doesn't rise to the English playwright's level. Gurney's premise is catchy, but he doesn't go far enough with it. Not only that, Unfortunately, his characters aren't sufficiently engaging.

Gurney supplies them with problems, of course. Ray is a philanderer who can't philander with room-service waitress Sharon (Jenn Lyon). Frank and Jessie are preparing to visit a new grandson, but Frank's angina is kicking in ominously. Vince is in Cambridge pushing Mark to score at a Harvard interview that garage-mechanic-hopeful Mark doesn't want in the worst way. Phil and Sally can't get their romance on the same page. Andy's on the verge of divorcing and gets closer to it when estranged wife Ruth (Rebecca Henderson) shows up with confrontation on her mind.

It's easy to see why director Lila Neugebauer wanted to take the play on. Keeping all the heated conversations--not to say arguments--discrete when in one way the participants are meant to be speaking at the same time in their various suites is a challenge any director might want to offer herself. Neugebauer handles it immaculately. She's aided, needless to say, by her cast, each one in fine fettle. The verbal and occasional fictional interplay fits like the carpentering on an exquisite piece of furniture.

But meeting a directorial challenge isn't the be-all-and-end-all of drama. Like that beautifully carpentered piece of furniture, The Wayside Motor Inn sits on the stage inert for too much of the time.

What happens when an absurdist theater piece like Red Eye of Love, Arnold Weinstein's 1961 off-Broadway click, is turned into vaudeville? If you want to find out for yourself, head to Amas Musical Theatre at the DiCapo Theatre, but here's fair warning that you're not going to like--or even understand--what over some time Weinstein (before his 2005 death) and original director John Wulp have done with material now set to Sam Davis's music.

Before I dismiss the new tuner entirely, it's only fair to mention that in a production that looks spiffily as if it wasn't mounted on a dime, there are a few pluses. First mention(s) go to invigorating ensemble members Katie Chang, Daniel Lynn Evans, Tracie Franklin, Katie Hagen, Daniel May and Sam Tanabe, who are called on to rush on and off stage, often with only seconds to change costumes. Evans, May and Tanabe get to stand out in the best number as tap-dancing heifers described amusing as heifer hoofers.

The heifer outfits are only three of the colorful costumes that Martha Bromelmeier has provided, most of them conjuring the '20s, '30s and '40s Weinstein was satirizing in his original script. (Bromelmeier comes from William Ivey Long's atelier, and in the program the William Ivy [sic] Long Studios get recognition.)

Also up for a grateful nod is Robert Indiana, who designed the set. Its primary asset is a mural on the back wall (over which projections often appear) that celebrates meat and different kinds of it in the well-known Indiana graphic design. Perhaps he's on view because he and Wulp--an accomplished artist with a stunning volume of his work on sale in the lobby--are friends. (Incidentally, Indiana has the longest bio in the program. Just an interesting piece of trivia.)

On the set, empty for the most part, are two upstage pianos. Music director Greg Jarrett and Roberto Sinha play them, both wearing straw hats and other Bromelmeier-supplied speakeasy garb. Their spirited plunking as they face each other over the spooning instruments goes a long way to keeping whatever vim is mustered.

Leading man Josh Grisetti and leading lady Alli Mauzey--the two of them having been seen to better advantage elsewhere--raise their voices pungently. Grisetti, who more and more looks like Ray Bolger and deserves that kind of material, has great emotion built into his tone and brings more to the score than it has intrinsically. Mauzey, whose pipes have a rousing edge, offers the same boost. She surely makes something of the logic-challenging title ditty.

In this confoundedly musicalized Red Eye of Love, Grisetti Is Wilmer Flange and Mauzey is Selma Chargesse. Happening into O. O. Martinas's 13-story meat emporium (the impetus behind Indiana's visual), Wilmer falls for Selma instantly. This is no happy development for bossy owner Martinas (Kevin Pariseau), who's got first dibs on the lady.

Whereupon a back-and-forth lovers' switch takes place over several decades as a kind of bargain basement Jules and Jim. There's no need here to itemize fully the offensive occurrences that ensue, but they include an ignorant depiction of World War II battle encounters, an off-key reference to the atom bomb and a son to Wilmer and Selma called Bez (Dylan Boyd as the young version), whose only action involves beating his father with something that looks like a rolled towel.

Please don't ask why Weinstein settled on the meat industry for O. O. (Is it a metaphor for the growing military-industrial complex?). Also refrain from asking why Wilmer becomes an itinerant doll salesman. You'll get no answers here.

You'd like a sample of the once-absurdist dialog accompanying this Ionesco-influenced summing up of America circa 1925-1947? Okay. Selma to Wilmer on one of their reconciliations: "Can you forgive me?" Wilmer to Selma: "No. But I will."

Oh, wait. Although the Weinstein-Wulp lyrics are plentiful, they're not especially clever and certainly not memorable. Davis's melodies, however, have a generic bounce. His children's musical Bunnicula is fun and along with this one suggests he'll have more to contribute on later occasions.