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Theatre in Review: The Coast Starlight (Lincoln Center Theater/Mitzi E. Newhouse)

Will Harrison, Camila Cáno-Flavia. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

The Coast Starlight may be the first play written in the conditional tense. Playwright Keith Bunin assembles a half a dozen strangers on a train headed from Los Angeles to Seattle, focusing on, of all things, an encounter that doesn't happen. The almost-connection is between T.J., a Navy medic about to go AWOL, and Jane, a cartoonist working in film. They will, eventually, have a brief exchange but, for the bulk of the evening, all six characters meet up on a sort of astral plane where they vent, read each other's minds, and run the odds associated with various life choices. It's an almost impossible concept to describe and by all rights it shouldn't work -- except that it does, casting a spell unlike anything I've experienced in a theatre recently. It's a cruise along the cliffs of possibility, a what-if exercise that becomes increasingly poignant as reality keeps intruding and life-altering decisions must be made.

T.J. is one of life's orphans, with no close relatives nor many friends; broken by his first tour of duty in Afghanistan, he can't bear the thought of returning. Fleeing his San Diego base and hopping the train in LA, he is urgently aware that each hour of travel brings him closer to legal jeopardy. Jane -- who is sensible, gifted, and ever-so-slightly haunted by her parents, a pair of overachieving immigrant mathematicians baffled by her choice of career -- is headed to Seattle for what she fears will be a farewell scene with her long-term boyfriend. A dedicated sketcher, she finds herself drawn to T.J., but can't think of an opening line. He, having purchased his ticket with a stolen credit card, is already on edge. Their attraction is obvious, but neither will make the first move.

But what if they might? As it happens, everyone has an opinion about that. Weighing in are Noah, a military veteran now living a borderline-feral existence roaming and doing odd jobs; Liz, a terror of an exercise trainer on the lam from an Esalen-hosted relationship workshop that ended in public humiliation; Ed, a working stiff with a busted marriage, mountains of debt, and a job that leaves him soul-scarred; and Anna, who, leaving behind her beloved wife and kids, embarks on a sad personal errand, collecting the body of her heroin-addicted brother.

They're a lively, opinionated, magpie bunch with wildly varied life experiences. Noah offers an enlightening tutorial on jackrabbit homesteads, government land grants inhabited mostly by ex-soldiers and other damaged types looking to dwell off the grid. Ed is fed up with working for company that publicizes new inventions, forcing him to spend his days with bottom feeders peddling dubious commercial ideas such as lacy thongs with Bible passages sewn into them. Anna bares the guilt she feels for focusing on her loving family and successful career while her brother slowly wastes away on the streets of San Francisco. Liz provides plenty of hilarity with a stream-of-consciousness rant about her dubious jobs as a magician's assistant and Disney theme park character, her side career as a hellion, and the moment when, in front of total strangers, her lover described their relationship as tantamount to "two lonely pine trees in a burnt-out forest."

Everyone has something to say but, as The Coast Starlight hurtles toward its final destination, they turn to plotting out possible futures for T.J., one of which centers on a sometimes-happy, sometimes troubled marriage to Jane, another of which features him condemned to a restless, anonymous existence hiding out from the government. Noah, who knows what he is talking about, offers dire warnings about the consequences of T.J. abandoning his post. Bunin, who has more than a touch of Thornton Wilder in him, takes the long view, intimating, contradictorily, that small decisions matter even if we are little more than specks in the universe. Interestingly, a play that could devolve into a series of set pieces retains a underlying tension hinging on two questions: Will Jane and T.J. finally speak to each other? Is his decision to run irrevocable?

Tyne Rafaeli's production is remarkable for its taste and tact; casting it flawlessly, she allows Bunin's writing to shine. Making his New York debut, Will Harrison brings a heartbreaking transparency to Will, who is desperate to find some kind of refuge from the world. ("The guys in charge use love like a weapon," he says about the military. "They know they can't get us to fight for that desert, so they get us to fight for each other.") Camila Canó-Flaviá provides a solid dramatic counterweight as Jane, whose carefully constructed life suddenly seems ripe for re-evaluation for reasons she can't fully explain. Jon Norman Schneider's Ed is laced with self-hatred and no small amount of irony. ("I could see everybody's rage turning to pity, which was awful, because you've really hit bottom when you're the most pitiful person in coach class on an overnight train.") Michelle Wilson is consistently touching as Anna, trying to figure out where her responsibilities lie and asking herself if she should tell her boys about the uncle they never knew. Rhys Coiro has plenty of wisdom to offer as Noah, who drifts from life to life; he also flirts expertly with Mia Barron as Liz, even as she insists that "it is possible to do a moderate and ladylike amount of cocaine."

Rafaeli's welcome restraint extends to the production design, featuring a revolving platform, courtesy of Arnulfo Maldonado. Filling out the onstage look are Lap Chi Chu's lighting, which is carefully modulated to several times of day and night, and projections by 59 Productions, which evoke the blur of passing scenery. Ásta Bennie Hostetter's costumes are filled with telling details; check out Liz's kicky black fringed boots. If Daniel Kluger's underscoring sometimes feels a touch saccharin -- I wonder if music is needed at all -- it is generally unobtrusive; his other effects are fluently done.

In a season featuring several playwrights, among them Samuel D. Hunter and Sarah Ruhl, wondering about our place in the universe, The Coast Starlight has a soulful contribution of its own to make. "I've come so far, and I have no idea where I'm headed," T.J. muses. Whatever; this trip is filled with gorgeous things to see and contemplate. --David Barbour

(14 March 2023)

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