When it comes to plot, characters, or often both, even the best theater tends to require a suspension of disbelief. Given that it’s hardly a sucker’s bet for indolent playwrights to pin their hopes on the lack of effort it requires an audience not to think, what Keith Bunin does in The Coast Starlight is astonishing. Taking its title from the Amtrak overnight sleeper that scenically services an ocean-hugging route from Los Angeles to Seattle, the play is primarily set in one of the train’s coach cars, where the passengers, a group of strangers, are reluctant to break the silence between them. Mostly, like real human beings, they don’t, or at least not when it might have done some good.
Tightening the narrative straightjacket, The Coast Starlight also is not big on plot contrivances, or for that matter any plot at all. But compellingly, what the play does possess and nurture is a sadly poetic heart, embodied through the character of T.J. (Will Harrison), a fresh-faced Navy medic traveling in the opposite direction of the Southern California military base where he is supposed to report for deployment to Afghanistan. A still unended war in The Coast Starlight, it’s a bloody nightmare T.J. has endured before and cannot bear to experience again.
Rather than unnaturally force T.J. out of his shell, Bunin ingeniously structures The Coast Starlight as a memory play, with all of the other passengers recalling the quiet young man who looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. But The Coast Starlight is not a series of detached, speculative monologues; it’s far more ambitious, in a way that might have been too clever by half if not for Bunin’s sincere aspirations and director Tyne Rafaeli’s beautifully restrained guidance. Immediately leaving the tracks for a celestial, or maybe purgatorial, realm, Bunin creates a transcendental space where the passengers essentially get a do-over, having the conversations they once longed to share with one another.
Elegantly emphasizing that the what-if dialogue is happening on a spiritual plane, Arnulfo Maldonado’s raised rotating set, backed with striations of projected empyrean light (designed by 59 Productions), looks like one. From beginning to end it’s occupied by T.J. and Jane (Camila Canó-Flaviá), the latter also headed the wrong way. An aspiring animator going to visit her boyfriend, Jane is plagued by an increasing sense that the long-distance relationship isn’t worth the trip. Taking full advantage of their mysterious future vantage point, which actually feels outside any scientific conception of time, T.J. and Jane see how they could have been each other’s salvation, if they both only had admitted to needing that from someone else.
As the train and the past move forward, individual riders board at fairly regular intervals, adding their experiences, uncertainties, and regrets to the vulnerable mix. Easily bearing the weight of these character additions, Bunin’s play makes every new face absorbingly essential to the whole not through any well-worn storytelling devices but, instead, by quickly and compassionately establishing their common humanity. In accomplishing this underappreciated feat, Bunin demonstrates how life deceptively obscures that we’re all going through it together.
The most self-revealing characters, no matter the time or place, are Liz (Mia Barron), who shouts intimate details about her recent humiliating break-up into a cell phone, and Ed (Jon Norman Schneider), a drunken traveling salesman whose inward loathing belligerently explodes outward, eventually rendering him a puddle of shame when he sobers up. Their uninhibited noisiness is offset by Anna (Michelle Wilson), lost in grief after a loved one’s early death, and Noah (Rhys Coiro), a military veteran and disconsolate drifter whose own service in Afghanistan, it turns out, gives him plenty to say about what T.J. is planning to do. The cast, half of whom originated their roles in the show’s La Jolla Playhouse inception, have such a charismatic rapport that it occasionally leads you to forget their standing on a stage.
When Liz describes herself as a “pioneer…who’d keep heading west forever if there was anyplace left to go,” there’s an exhaustion in her voice, born of the false hopes that are always present just over the horizon. Sound designer Daniel Kluger conveys this tension aurally, juxtaposing the train’s rumble against the dreamy original music he provides for the production. Whereas one conjures the overrated romanticism and crushing solitude of the neverending journey, the other bids us toward an imagined community where connection is possible.
As the characters in the play do, an audience should experience The Coast Starlight as a leap of faith towards the latter. Some might think that requires a suspension of disbelief, too. But that’s a cynical response to a profoundly uncynical playwright who is asking us to look for ourselves in the people we see but don’t see. That’s only about belief.
The Coast Starlight (through April 16, 2023)
Lincoln Center Theater
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.lct.org
Running time: one hour and 35 minutes without an intermission