'The Coast Starlight' review — play about missed connections chugs along at a crawl
Read our review of The Coast Starlight, a new play written by Keith Bunin, currently playing off Broadway at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater through April 16.
The passenger next to you on a long train ride could be the bane of your existence — or they could be your soulmate. When that trip is 36 hours long, it’s impossible not to imagine both. Such is the conceit of Keith Bunin’s The Coast Starlight, now playing at Lincoln Center Theater.
The play begins with Jane (Camila Canó-Flaviá) and T.J. (Will Harrison) confessing, or rehearsing, what they would have told each other on the title train if either had gathered the courage to speak. Though they don't know it, they were both taken with each other almost instantly, as if drawn together by some external force of fate (or narrative convenience).
Jane is a cartoonist en route to Seattle to visit, and probably break up with, her long-distance boyfriend. T.J., a Navy combat medic, was set to ship out from San Diego to Afghanistan the next morning but instead bought a train ticket with a stolen credit card. Noah (Rhys Coiro), a world-weary veteran, interrupts the would-be lovers with his own reverie of what he might have said to the shaken T.J.
T.J.’s conflict could be engaging should the play’s proverbial train ever leave the station, and Coiro lends a hard-edged sense of humor to Noah that endears him to the audience. However, The Coast Starlight chugs along at a snail’s pace. Actors shout monotonous recollections and delight in their half-hearted observations on the human condition along the entire Pacific Coast, leaving little unexpressed and more to be desired.
Fortunately, Liz (Mia Barron) soon bursts onto the train, reeling from a breakup at a wellness retreat that may have almost been the scene of her murder. She screeches the story of her failed relationship into her phone as the other passengers worry she doesn’t realize they're there. Barron knows how to work the audience for laughs in between moments of tension, and her performance delights and entertains the rest of the journey.
The Coast Starlight’s thesis — that strangers on a train could change each other’s lives, and that you never really know what someone else is going through — wants to be profound, but it lands somewhere a bit juvenile. Life lessons such as these feel obvious, and the characters’s exchanges on empathy don't feel like natural dialogue.
It doesn’t help that Jane has one of the biggest parts but the lowest stakes of the passengers. Her love life feels out of place with discussions of Noah’s transience or Anna (Michelle Wilson, whose performance exudes love) identifying her deceased brother’s body.
Lighting by Lap Chi Chu expertly evokes sunlight peeking through window slats, but other scenic elements do nothing to accelerate or enhance the story; the turntable stage spins so often and so much at a time as to render its potential meaning null. Director Tyne Rafaeli can pull much more resonant stage images from a text, but here, her touch feels missing.
The play works best when it relies less on the literal thoughts of the passengers and leans into the purgatorial nature of the train: T.J. is trapped in a space that can only function as liminal, set to leave a career meant to be temporary as well. When his life plays out before his eyes, when his future contains all the possibilities and disappointments a train ride can hold — that is when the play soars. It too is brief a moment, stuck between stations.
Photo credit: Mia Barron, Rhys Coiro, Michelle Wilson, Will Harrison, and Jon Norman Schneider in The Coast Starlight. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
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