The characters in Michael Bunin’s The Coast Starlight, now running at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater following a premiere at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse), have gotten a ticket for the eponymous Amtrak line (which runs up and down the West Coast) for various reasons: some are escaping something familiar, while others are returning to something they know. Either way, despite the shades of humanity director Tyne Rafaeli tries to etch into the production, all we’re left with is six characters in search of a reason for being – and a playwright who doesn’t know quite what to tell them.
The first passenger we meet is T.J. (Will Harrison), a respectful Navy medic who has gone AWOL thanks to a stolen credit card and identification. The first to encounter him is Jane (Camila Canó-Flaviá), a remarkably self-aware artist herself headed to Seattle to meet up with her long-distance boyfriend for what she is prepared to be a breakup. She’s taken by T.J., but can’t bring herself to come up with an ice breaker and carry on a conversation, instead opting to sketch him and tell the audience her innermost thoughts.
Eventually, in reverse Agatha Christie order, Bunin introduces each new character. There’s Noah (Rhys Coiro), himself a military veteran who’s largely gone off the grid; Liz (Mia Barron), who boards the train seemingly minutes following her own breakup at an Esalen Institute meeting; Ed (Jon Norman Schneider), a traveling consultant who works for a company that publicizes new inventions; and Anna (a very humane Michelle Wilson), who is returning to her family after identifying the body of her late brother, now dead after years of battles with addiction in San Francisco. 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.
All of these characters are potentially interesting – that is, they have the potential to be interesting if they were realized as dramatic characters. But in order for that to happen, Bunin would have had to find a way for his audience to learn about them by watching their interactions with one another over the course of the play. But this sextet doesn’t do that. Instead, their inner monologues become external. (And Barron, making mincemeat of a low-hanging entrance monologue in the form of a one-sided phone call, has to make hers an especially loud one at that.)
That would be lazy enough, except these monologues are not heard by the other characters – they’re delivered solely to the audience, as these characters let us in (and who are we to them? It’s never made clear; the question doesn’t even seem to have come up) on how they assess the other passengers and what they might have said to or done with them. Furthermore, they never contain any surprise. T.J. isn’t even so much a character as he is a convenience, a man without a country – with no family or career blueprint to root him down, he’s a free bird about whose unknown future they can opine about.
What Starlight really wants to be, I imagine, is a musical. Each character’s arrival and subsequent monologue is a “This Is Who I Am” song – but even the best of musicals know that the songs must deepen character and further plot (see: Kimberly Akimbo). If you transposed Starlight to a musical in its current, form, you’d have a first act that immediately jumped to the curtain call. What’s missing is the meat of the story here, the threads that move us and make us care.
The inordinate amount of telling rather than showing doesn’t mean that Starlight is not a theatrical event. Rafaeli still employs creative technique onstage, particularly in the form of Arnulfo Maldonado’s rotating platform set with movable Amtrak seats, enabling the audience to view the car from all angles. Lap Chi Chu’s gorgeous lighting allows us to chart the passage of time, but it also adds a slightly surreal bent, especially when combined with 59 Productions’ projection design.
Daniel Kluger’s haunting original score also hints at the heights this show could have hit with a bit more work thrown into the conceit: something more ethereal and a little less earthbound. Bunin is so tied to premise by taking it to the next level. Is The Coast Starlight a kind purgatory, or a different kind of celestial limbo? The outlook doesn’t look so good, so what we’re left with is a juvenile experiment in anti-theatrics. Neither obeisant of the most basic of dramatic tenets – obstacles, rising stakes, common interaction – nor particularly invested in the future lives of any of its characters, Starlight takes off without any sense of where it has to go.
The Coast Starlight
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center