The travelers who check in at The Wayside Motor Inn, A.R. Gurney's engrossing 1977 play, now in an absorbing revival at Signature Theater, are a disparate band, all looking for love in one way or another, but maybe in the wrong place to find it.
Inspired by Longfellow's epic The Wayside Inn and the biblical parable of the sower, some of whose seeds fell by the wayside, Gurney's play may at first seem a simple nostalgic time-capsule. But as the stories spin out of his 10 wayfarers who find themselves in the motel of the title outside Boston, their hopes and fears resonate over the decades.
For anyone who tends to think of Gurney as primarily the humorous chronicler of the life and times of New England WASPs, The Wayside Motor Inn may come as a surprise. While there are funny moments in the play, each of the conflicts Gurney's characters confront build to a dramatic conclusion in the second act.
The play certainly captures the mood and culture of the time in which it is set. Chain motels were popping up across the country, displacing hotels by offering modern amenities such as air conditioning, TV's in every room, a coffee maker, and vibrating beds. The room in which all action is played out, often in overlapping scenes, serves as the individual and identical ones each of the guests occupy. It features faux Ethan Allen furniture, dizzying wallpaper, and a view of a cloverleaf intersection where three highways merge.
Further inspiration for Gurney's play were the early Verdi (and one might add Mozart) operas in which the composer would have several voices singing differing emotional themes at the same time in quartets, quintets, even sextets. (One knows this from James Houghton's helpful innovation of providing background information on each play Signature produces on a well-designed wall poster in the lobby.)
The Wayside Motor Inn in fact is scored for 10 voices - ranging from a set of new grandparents, to a father and his teenage son, to a pair of college undergrads, to a couple in the throes of divorce, to a computer technician and a waitress at the motel's diner.
Each has his or her own agenda. The first guest we meet is Ray. He enters carrying a briefcase (remember those?). He turns off the AC, turns on the TV, loosens his tie, and pulls out a bottle and a clunky portable phone from the case. It turns out he has something to do with those new-fangled things called computers and his first objective is to assure his wife back home he is alone in the motel room; he then proceeds to try to hook up with a woman for the night.
The next to arrive are Frank and Jessie, an elderly couple who have driven many miles to see their newborn grandchild. Frank is clearly ailing, worried about another heart attack, and the drive has tired him out. Jessie, whose sole purpose in life at this point is to hold her grandbaby, fusses over him and pesters him to get back in the car and drive to see the infant.
They are followed by Vince and his son Mark, who is a senior in a high school. Vince is determined Mark should get admitted to Harvard and has arranged a meeting with an influential booster toward that end. Mark, however, is mainly interested in becoming an auto mechanic and wants to take a gap year off to work in a garage.
They are followed by Phil and Sally, two undergrads who are splurging on a motel room for a night of uninterrupted sex. Phil has brought The Joy of Sex and some marijuana; Sally has brought Jane Eyre and refuses the joint. The last person to check in is Andy, a doctor who has recently taken a new job in Pennsylvania and is being divorced by his wife Ruth who did not want to uproot their school-age children and move from Boston with him.
The last voice to join the chorus is Sharon, a waitress in the motel diner who can give you a dozen reasons why you should not eat anything on the menu and who is convinced every company in America is owned by one giant multinational corporation. When Ray tries to hit on her, she also finds the voice of the nascent feminism that was beginning to crescendo in the 1970's.
A fine all-round cast under Lila Neugebauer's taut direction keeps the tension mounting even when two scenes are being played out simultaneously. Marc Kudisch is especially good as Vince, the father who wants to impose his own dream of going to Harvard onto his son and nurses a quiet jealousy of the boy's high school adviser. And Will Pullen is a match for him as his son Mark, who learns to stand his own ground.
As Sally, Ismenia Mendes is a model of the young feminist, insisting on paying her half of the motel room and wanting some commitment before hopping into bed. Jenn Lyon is convincing as Sharon, a bimbo with a conscience and growing social awareness, and Jon DeVries is touching as Frank, irascible toward his wife and ashamed of it, but afraid he is about to die.