The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through October 5, $55-$75
Award-winning playwright A. R. Gurney is currently represented by a pair of New York City revivals of two vastly different works. The Buffalo-born Gurney’s 1988 Love Letters, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, has recently begun a star-studded production at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, directed by Gregory Mosher and featuring five pairs of big-time actors in succession — Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy, Carol Burnett and Dennehy, Candice Bergen and Alan Alda, Diana Rigg and Stacy Keach, and Anjelica Huston and Martin Sheen — as a couple examining their long relationship by sitting down and reading letters they wrote to each other. Meanwhile, a bit southwest at the Signature Theatre, five two-character stories are being told simultaneously in a revival of Gurney’s 1977 densely packed drama The Wayside Motor Inn. Set outside Boston in the 1970s, the entire play takes place in a motel room where ten people come and go, as five unique stories occur at the same time in the same space. The set, designed by Andrew Lieberman, is a basic motel room with two queen-size beds in the center, a bathroom on the left, and a glass door with a small balcony at the right; it actually represents five separate rooms, but Gurney and director Lila Neugebauer ably guide the individual, overlapping narratives skillfully. Frank (Jon DeVries) and Jessie (Lizbeth Mackay) are an elderly couple visiting their new grandchild. Vince (Richard Topol filling in for Marc Kudisch the night we went) is an obsessed father determined that his son, Mark (Will Pullen), will get into Harvard, no matter what the moody teen really wants. Ray (Quincy Dunn-Baker) is a slick computer salesman and unfaithful spouse making a play for motel maid Sharon (Jenn Lyon). Andy (Kelly AuCoin) and Ruth (Rebecca Henderson) are in the midst of a contentious divorce. And young Phil (David McElwee) and Sally (Ismenia Mendes) are ready to make love for the first time.
Over the course of two hours (with intermission), each character is forced to face some hard truths about their future while coming to terms with just what they want, expect, and, perhaps most important, need out of life. They reevaluate what they’ve done and where they’ve been as well as where they’re going. Some of the plots are more mundane and cliché-ridden than others, but Gurney, who was inspired by Verdi’s operas and the biblical parable of the sower and the seed in creating the play, makes them work as a uniform whole, with small elements from some relating to others as the actors from the different tales manage not to bump into one another or step on each other’s lines. In some ways, the five narratives can even be seen as events from a sixth, unseen life as couples first meet, fall in love, fall out of love, stick it out, send a child to college, have grandchildren, then face death. The Wayside Motor Inn might not accomplish all its lofty goals, but it is a compelling and entertaining exercise in formalist structure that always stays on track. The show, which runs through October 5, is part of Gurney’s Signature Residency, which continues in May 2015 with a revival of his 1981 play What I Did Last Summer, followed by the world premiere of a new play in the 2015-16 season.