Saturday, September 6, 2014

Theater Reviews—A.R. Gurney's 'The Wayside Motor Inn' & Shaw Festival 2014

The Wayside Motor Inn
Written by A.R. Gurney; directed by Lila Neugebauer
Performances through September 28, 2014
Signature Theatre Company, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Shaw Festival 2014
Arms and the Man
Written by Bernard Shaw
Music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb
A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur
Written by Tennessee Williams
When We Are Married
Written by J.B. Priestley
Performances through October 26, 2014
Niagara on the Lake, Canada

Ismenia Mendes and David McElwee in The Wayside Motor Inn (photo: Joan Marcus)
A. R. Gurney, America's most civilized, genteel playwright, paints particular portraits, usually of society's upper crust, as in The Cocktail Hour or The Dining Room. His writing more recently became political, disgusted and alarmed as Gurney was over the Bush administration; I wonder if he will write anything about Obama. But much of his career has been one urbane work after another. It's no wonder that Love Letters—which consists of an actor and actress reading letters to each other—is being revived on Broadway this fall with rotating pairs of performers.

When his 1977 comedy-drama The Wayside Motor Inn premiered, it wasn't very well received, since it was more experimental than usual for Gurney: five unrelated stories about five pairs of regular (not affluent) people were played out near-simultaneously on the same set. And indeed, in the first act of director Lila Neugebauer's pleasing revival, there's a sense that, as the plots move forward in a sterile room in the title inn situated near Boston, not much happens in these quotidian lives on an ordinary day.

But, as the second act makes clear, Gurney's point is that there are no (or rare) grand epiphanies or intense dramas in our lives. The closest is a brief heart episode that Frank, sixty-ish husband to nagging wife Jesse, has when alone in the room, or when irate dad Vince tears teenage son Mark's favorite shirt when he refuses to wear a preppy pink one to the meeting Vince arranged for him with an important Harvard alum. 

Indeed, most of what happens is everyday, like college couple Phil and Sally trying to be alone together, or married traveling salesman Ray trying to talk inn employee Sharon (she of the wryly funny pronouncements about the horrible state of the world) into a date, or the escalating arguments betwwen divorcing husband Andy and wife Sharon when she stops by his room and discovers that he swiped beloved family photo albums.

Life goes on for these people, who may be a little wiser or worse for wear after a few hours holed up in this motel room: or maybe not. Either way, Gurney's play comprises typically elegant dialogue and construction, even if the multi-story conceit owes much to Alan Ayckbourn, who did much better by it in How the Other Half Lives, and makes similar ingenious sleights of hand far less gimmicky than Gurney does here. 

Still, director Neugebauer guides the busy stage traffic deftly, while Andrew Lieberman's exacting set and Kaye Voyce's vivid costumes take us right back to the late '70s. In a strong cast of ten, Ismenia Mendes etches a fiercely believable portrait of Sally's sexual confusion (Mendes is fast becoming, after Family Furniture and this, a go-to Gurney favorite), while Jenn Lyon makes a sexy, flirty Sharon.

Every summer, a trek to Niagara on the Lake is good for the soul. This idyllic country town is home to delectable wines made by award-winning wineries, along with housing the Shaw Festival: sampling the wines and attending plays (and, lately, musicals) performed by the best repertory acting troupe around are annual traditions I try not to miss.

Seeing several performances at Shaw allows one to watch the same performers splendidly enact different roles, whether comic, dramatic, farcical, tragic or musical. And so it is this year, starting with the exquisite Deborah Hay, who not only gives a remarkable portrayal of floozy chanteuse Sally Bowles in Peter Hinton's engrossing staging of Cabaret, but also sympathetically plays Dorothea, who is another Tennessee Williams attempt to reincarnate Blanche Dubois in his gauche one-act A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, this season's lunchtime presentation, staged rather toothlessly by director Blair Williams.

In Cabaret—whose obviously symbolic spiral staircase set by Michael Gianfrancesco is utilized to the hilt by director Hinton, at times to the show's detriment—the amazing Hay leads an array of accomplished actors like veterans Benedict Campbell as Herr Schultz and Corinne Koslo as Fraulein Schneider. In the seminal role of the Emcee, Juan Chioran copies neither Joel Grey nor Alan Cumming, instead coming up with an equally compelling interpretation of his own, with none of the excessive campiness that marred Cumming's return to the part on Broadway this spring. 

Attending the Shaw Festival leads to blissful discoveries. This season, it's J. B. Priestley's When We Are Married, an hilariously frenzied comedy (premiering in 1938) about three Yorkshire couples, married on the same day in the same chapel 25 years ago, finding out on their Silver Anniversary that they are not legal. These proper Victorians set about dealing with the possibility that they've been living in sin for a quarter-century in drolly humorous ways, while director Joseph Ziegler makes a masterly ringmaster in the Shaw's new production, which has a crackerjack cast led by Claire Jullien as one of the "wives" and Thom Marriott as one of the "husbands."

Jullien also appears in (and pretty much steals) a disappointing revival of Arms and the Man, Bernard Shaw's magisterial exploration of war and peace, both on the battlefield and the boudoir. Would that director Morris Panych didn't irrelevantly push this classic comedy toward farce, with unfelicitous results. But even in such a wayward production, Shaw's caustic humor and still-relevant observations remain a theatrical force to be reckoned with.

The Wayside Motor Inn
Signature Theatre Company, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Shaw Festival 2014
Niagara on the Lake, Canada

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