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Passengers on today’s railroads seem to face an increased risk of explosions, derailments and physical attacks, but those catastrophes don’t affect the six people we meet aboard The Coast Starlight, the LA-to-Seattle train that serves as both the setting and title to Keith Bunin’s absorbing new play, now at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre under Tyne Rafaeli’s solid direction.

Instead, it’s the sextet’s inability -- even refusal – to connect with one another that ends up causing them harm, resulting in missed opportunities that could have changed their lives in significant ways.
The first passenger we meet, T.J. (an affecting Will Harrison), certainly has reasons for keeping to himself. He’s in the midst of deserting from the U.S. Navy to avoid returning to Afghanistan and is traveling under a false identity. He hardly seems like a renegade, so we believe he might get off the train at any time and return to his base in San Diego.

Still, T.J.’s fear of giving anything away – and his seemingly natural shyness – also prevents him from chatting up the attractive Jane (Camila Cano-Flavia), an animation artist who keeps sketching him, and who has her own reasons for wanting to talk to the handsome young man seated across from her. (Arnulfo Maldonado’s simple set consists primarily of six train seats, easily rearranged, set on a spinning platform.)

So, here’s the twist: While TJ, Jane and the four other passengers rarely talk to each other in “reality,” Bunin’s play lets us hear their inner thoughts – and, most importantly, the conversations they could (and should) have had with each other, which are alternately revealing, quite funny, and, as often as not, deeply sad.

Smartly and succinctly, we learn their histories: Noah (a believable Rhys Coiro) is a hard-bitten military veteran off to visit his dementia-ridden mother in Oregon and leaving nothing behind but a hand-to-mouth existence; Liz (a deliciously over-the-top Mia Barron) has been blindsided by the latest in a long string of lovers during a spiritual retreat; Ed (Jon Norman Schneider) is a divorced traveling salesman literally and figuratively on the edge of giving up; and Anna (the always excellent Michelle Wilson) is a happily married lesbian who has just identified the dead body of her long-estranged, heroin-addicted brother.

Bunin knows how to deftly “sketch” each of these characters, so we immediately understand and sympathize with them. Moreover, they all get well-written speeches, whether in the form of Liz and Ed’s desperate rants, the angry rebukes by Noah, or the quieter ruminations of Jane and Anna. With surprisingly little else to look at (a wide screen in the back of the house is sadly underused by the 59 Productions team), we’re lucky these ordinary people make the trip go by quickly.

But as with all “long” trips (admittedly, the play itself only runs about 90 minutes), a feeling of “are we there yet” creeps in about 20 minutes before we arrive at our destination. Our anxiety is heightened as well because we want to know exactly what awaits us at the final stop. Bunin writes both an ending and a series of epilogues; sadly, the former is unsatisfying; the latter seem rather unnecessary.

While the play doesn’t go off the rails at the end, it’s far from a smooth landing for “The Coast Starlight.”

By Brian Scott Lipton

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Mia Barron, Camila Canó-Flaviá, Rhys Coiro, Will Harrison, Jon Norman Schneider, Michelle Willson

Open/Close Dates
Opening 3/13/2023
Closing 4/16/2023

Theatre Info
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
150 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023