A.R. Gurney's problem play is still a problem.
Last fall, Signature Theatre kicked off its season devoted to A.R. Gurney with a real find -- a moving, compelling revival of his "The Wayside Motor Inn," generally dismissed by critics in 1977 as too confusing. In August, we get a new play, "Love and Money," by this almost outlandishly prolific playwright, now 84.
In the middle of the three-play series we now have "What I Did Last Summer," a problematic work which had its premiere in 1983 at the late, lamented Circle Repertory Theatre. Gurney says this has always been a secret favorite, "like a child that had a very difficult upbringing."
The revival -- directed with intentionally exaggerated histrionics and strained stylization by Jim Simpson -- is not likely to change the play's minor standing among Gurney's rich library. This semiautobiographical work, which only becomes meaningful in the final scenes, involves a privileged, smart-alecky 14-year-old named Charlie and his life-changing encounter with an inspirational bohemian outcast in a Canadian seaside town where WASPs from Buffalo summer.
It is 1945 and the men are away at war, leaving families unmoored without father figures and handymen. Charlie -- played by Noah Galvin with a hyped-up emphasis on gawky adolescence -- is the first to address the audience. This is, he tells us, "a play about me." The running gag is that almost all the others, one by one, tell us the play is really about them.
Simpson, founding director of the adventurous Flea Theater and longtime Gurney collaborator, stretches these few meta-moments into a style that feels gimmicky and superimposed on the essential naturalism of the play. There is a plain blond-wood stage (designed by Michael Yeargan) backed by a tilted screen on which stage directions are typed. A drummer sits on one side, providing rhythmic punctuation to lines and -- in case we don't get them -- the jokes.
Familiar coming-of-age revelations are punched up into grating bellows. Kristine Nielsen, after a first act of screeching and cackling as the town eccentric known as the "Pig Lady," mellows to create a touching portrait of an art teacher, a freethinking woman before her time. Although it seemed unthinkable, this production actually makes the interesting Carolyn McCormick, as Charlie's conflicted mother, dull. Rather than a play about an annoying time of life, this is an annoying play.
WHERE Pershing Square Signature Theatre Center, 480 W. 42nd St.
INFO $25; 212-244-7529, signaturetheatre.org