What happens when an overly flashy supporting character momentarily derails your play? Something like that happens in Keith Bunin’s “The Coast Starlight” when the loudmouth Liz (Mia Barron) gets aboard the titular Amtrak train somewhere around San Jose on the way from Los Angeles to Seattle. For the play’s first 20 minutes, we follow the stories of three other passengers even though they haven’t spoken a word to each other.
Bunin’s method here is ingenuous, and he delivers if flawlessly. The young passenger named Jane (Camila Cano-Flavia) works as an animator in the L.A. film industry, and on the way to meeting her boyfriend up the coast, she relieves her boredom by sketching a fellow passenger, whom she is clearly attracted to. Jane imagines what she would say to him if she ever works up the courage to talk to him. The young man she sketches is a soldier named TJ (Will Harrison), and having been stationed in San Diego, he now harbors a dark secret that’s propelling him northward to a place he can’t quite imagine. TJ also wishes he had the courage to speak, and, like Jane, needs to resort to “what if” and “what would happen” to carry on an imaginary conversation with the passenger across the aisle. Theirs is a chat that has all the mercurial fluidity not of speech but of thought. Non sequiturs abound and future lives are created and just as easily abandoned as other daydreams replace them.
Fresh off his boat in Morro Bay, Noah (Rhys Coiro) enters the Coast Starlight shortly into Jane and TJ’s reverie, and as that couple continues not to speak to each other, this new, slightly older, a lot rougher and bearded passenger momentarily disrupts the civil calm of the train car, especially when Noah removes his long-sleeve shirt to flaunt a buff body, hidden only by a skimpy tank-top (costumes by Asta Bennie Hostetter), which does nothing to distract Jane from wanting to speak to TJ.
Then along comes Liz somewhere around San Jose.
“The Coast Starlight” opened Monday at LTC’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater after a 2019 run at the La Jolla Playhouse. It would be interesting to compare the audience reaction there with how the play is received at Lincoln Center. Bunin delivers a lot of digs at the dippy California culture that provoke easy guffaws of condescension from a New York audience.
Liz may hail from Florida, but she has lived long enough in the Golden State to have gotten a certificate in teaching women how to tighten up their butts and intensify their orgasms. If Jane and TJ aren’t speaking to each other, Liz is definitely speaking very loudly to a friend on her cellphone, and it’s the kind of talk that compels you to move to the Quiet Car – unless you are sitting in a theater, and then Liz’s frank dirty talk proves absolutely riveting. Barron runs with Liz for all that flamboyant character is worth, and she runs “The Coast Starlight” right off the track.
Other passengers follow Liz. There’s a middle-aged alcoholic named Ed (Jon Norman Schneider) who spends his life going from one Best Western to the next, and there’s a mother of two named Anna (Michelle Wilson) who’s returning home to her wife and kids. Despite exemplary performances from Schneider and Wilson, there’s no following Barron.
Bunin’s structure, so fluid in the moments leading up to Liz, now settles into the kind of extended monologues that are popular in acting classes. When Ed and Anna tell their respective life stories, we have to wonder why the logorrheic Liz tolerates taking a back seat on the train. What galvanizes far more than anything Ed and Anna have to say is that growing physical attraction between Liz and Noah, which, thanks to the performances of Barron and Coiro, sizzles nicely upstage in the rear of the train.
Does “The Coast Starlight” get back on track before arriving in Seattle? Arnulfo Maldonado’s revolving set replicates the experience of zooming along railroad tracks in the middle of the night, and that experience is enhanced mightily by Lap Chi Chu’s lighting, Daniel Kluger’s sound and the abstract projections by 59 Productions. Tyne Rafaeli’s direction is also a kinetic marvel. She moves her actors around the stage as if it were a giant chessboard and someone has hit the fast-forward button.
Life is scary because there are so many possibilities. Life is wonderful because there are so many possibilities. Shortly before the Coast Starlight pulls into the Seattle station, Bunin wisely eschews his monologues to have his ensemble of actors join together to imagine various alternate realities that travel decades into the future and back.
Playing the young soldier who never quite makes up his mind on what to do but has only a short amount of time to do it, Harrison keeps us guessing what decision his TJ will ultimately make. Barron gets most of the laughs, but it is Harrison’s easy magnetism that pulls the play safely into that last station.