The motel room drama is a genre all its own. Its structure generally involves a short stay in a strange, tight space where two or more friends, spouses or lovers have it out with one another, while anything from bad weather to existential threats keep them from fleeing. Examples range from Sam Shepard’s dynamic Fool for Love to A.R. Gurney’s contemplative The Wayside Motor Inn. In his 2018 one-act, Only Yesterday, television writer and first-time playwright Bob Stevens adds a couple of new elements to the form. His work is inspired by actual events, and the characters happen to be two of the most famous men in the world: John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Thus confined by reality and familiarity, the results are nostalgic, if not exactly explosive.
On Sept. 9, 1964, the Beatles were due to arrive in Jacksonville, Fla., ahead of their concert date of Sept. 11. However, Hurricane Dora caused the flight to be diverted to Key West, and the Fab Four ended up staying a hard day’s night at the less than fabulous Key Wester motel. That much is factual. What exactly transpired that evening is open to interpretation. Stevens takes his creative cue, and the play’s prologue, from a 2001 NPR interview in which McCartney explains:
With that much time on our hands, we really didn’t know what to do with it except get drunk. And so that was what we did. And we stayed up all night talking, talking, talking like it was going out of style. And at some point early in the morning, I think we must have touched on some points that were emotional, and we ended up crying.
So, we find John (Christopher Sears, reminding us that Lennon was capable of anger) and Paul (a mop-topped and magnetic Tommy Crawford) sharing a run-down room, penned in by both the storm and a throng of screaming fans. (Geroge and Ringo are only briefly alluded to and have an offstage room of their own where, presumably, they await their own bio-play.) One of their first acts of business is also a true event. They refuse to perform after learning that their Jacksonville audience is set to be segregated. City officials ultimately relent. This, along with the fact that their motel television and radio can pick up only Cuban broadcasts, and their occasionally pointing out how black music influenced their own songwriting, all seem to point the play in a sociopolitical direction. But the work’s central theme is, instead, psychological, if not downright Freudian. It turns out that even rock stars miss their mothers.
Stevens and director Carol Dunne provide a series of distractions for John and Paul before they finally devolve into tears over the loss of their mums. Telephone interviews drive one scene until John rips the old rotary phone from the wall. There’s the requisite motel room pillow fight. A harried road manager (Christopher Flockton) drops in and out, bringing sacks of fan mail and bottles of Scotch. And a heard-but-not-seen 13-year-old fangirl (Olivia Swayze) wedges herself into the air-conditioning vent for a charming conversation about family and growing up that cocks the emotional trigger.
And, of course, there is music. Set in the same year as the release of the Beatles’ first U.S. album, it is too early for any of their greatest hits. Instead, Crawford and Sears show off pleasing voices and sharp guitar skills, riffing on classics of the era like Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Want to Dance,” and Buddy Holly’s “Everyday.” The climactic moment of John channeling his late mother by singing a ballad she herself loved to perform would have been piercing, were that song not, unfortunately, “Danny Boy.”
It is rare that costuming, or lack thereof, upsets the mood of a piece, but such is the case here. In this staging, brought to New York by Vermont’s Northern Stage company, designer Allison Crutchfield provides the familiar Beatles formal wear: thin ties and dark jackets. And though they at least unbutton their collars once they settle in, John and Paul never change out of their tight-fitting garb even as they drink deep into the wee hours of the morning. Their suitcases sit unopened. At one point, John even wears a bathrobe over his snug vest. Perhaps Dunne is trying to establish the buttoned-up nature of the lads, their unwillingness to expose themselves to each other. But an eventual bonding session while jamming in their jammies would have taken this sad choice and made it better.
Only Yesterday plays through Sept. 29 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St.). Evening performances are at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2:15 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. To purchase tickets, call the 59E59 box office at (646) 892-7999 or visit 59e59.org.