Monday, April 3, 2023

The Coast Starlight (Lincoln Center Theater)

By Harry Forbes

How many films and plays have we seen wherein a motley set of characters interact aboard a ship, a plane, or a train? But Keith Bunin’s absorbing and ultimately moving play -- which was commissioned and premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2019 -- gives that old formula a novel twist.

Aboard the train from Los Angeles to Seattle known as The Coast Starlight, six solitary passengers have minimal physical or verbal interaction as they sit in their respective seats, but their innermost thoughts about the fellow travelers, and the imagined conversations that ensue, play out with mesmerizing dramatic potency.

The focal point is T.J., a young Navy medic stationed at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, beautifully played by Will Harrison in an auspicious New York theater debut. T.J. is due back at base for redeployment to Afghanistan, but he’s gone AWOL. As the train wends its way, he wonders if he should, in fact, disembark, and head back while there’s still time.

HIs troubled demeanor catches the attention of animation artist Jane (Camila Canó-Flaviá) who watches him across the aisle, surreptitiously sketching him while wondering about his stricken expression.

As the train heads on its northward course, they are joined by army vet Noah (Rhys Coiro), now making ends meet with bartending and various odd jobs, and traveling to see his aging mother. And then boisterous 40-something Liz (Mia Barron) who bursts into thei car loudly and profanely detailing the seamy details of breaking up with her boyfriend during a couples workshop over her cell phone. Her hilarious monologue is delivered with showstopping bravura. When T.J. shyly asks her if she’s alright after this emotional tirade (one of the few actual verbal interactions in the play), Liz apologizes to everyone in the car, and offers to buy drinks for all. 

Before long, they’re joined by alcoholic and embittered businessman Ed (Jon Norman Schneider) whose inner rage is palpable as he sets the others nervously on edge. And finally, Anna (Michelle Wilson), a lesbian mother of two, who is just returning from identifying the body of her estranged dead brother. She, too, notices T.J.’s troubled mien, and offers him her sleeping compartment for the night. 

The compassion shown by the characters, all grappling with their individual dilemmas, is profoundly touching.

The performances, under the sensitive direction of Tyne Rafaeli,  couldn't be better. And Arnulfo Maldonado’s turntable set moodily lighted by Lap Chi Chu, against a backdrop of 59 Productions’ projections, captures the essence of the train’s movement and the passage of its 36-hour time most beautifully..

Though in this day and age, opening up to your seatmates on your next trip may not be the safest or most sensible course of action, Bunin’s intensely humanistic worldview here makes that prospect seem wonderfully appealing. 

This exquisitely crafted and performed play is very much worth your time.

(Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65 Street; or 212-239-6200 ; through April 16)

Photo by T. Charles Erickson: (l.-r.) Mia Barron, Rhys Coiro, Michelle Wilson, Will Harrison and Jon Norman Schneider. Print this post


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