“Woulda, coulda, shoulda” might have made an appropriate subtitle for The Coast Starlight, Keith Bunin’s new play at Lincoln Center Theater that captures the random encounters, possibilities, and romance of train travel. With an excellent ensemble cast, ingenious set, and an empathy-quotient that feels like a balm in the current climate, this is a train journey that will inspire and delight the most reluctant travelers.
Six solo passengers board the Coast Starlight at intervals along the 36-hour long route between Los Angeles and Seattle, and while the conversation is limited, they contemplate in detail what they might have said to each other had they taken the plunge. That is the simplified premise of what, in fact, is a sensitive exploration of our inner motivations. The first passenger is a young idealistic cartoon artist, played with wide eyed earnestness by Camila Canó-Flaviá. Using the ride to sketch her fellow train riders, she quickly becomes intrigued by a young and troubled-looking man. Through an inner monologue, we discover that T.J., ably embodied by Will Harrison, is on the cusp of a life changing decision: will he desert his navy medic post and go on the run or will he return to the battle front in Afghanistan. The other passengers include a veteran who also served in Afghanistan on the way to care for his ailing mother (unusual and welcome to have two military characters in what is a civilian play), a woman in the midst of a breakup, a sister dealing with the death of her estranged brother, and a washed-up salaryman drowning his sorrows in drink. The train ride offers each of them the opportunity to think about their lives and reach some kind of decision.
While it may sound like an introverted moan-fest there’s plenty of humor and optimism along the way. The neat storytelling device allows both back stories and the conclusions of those stories to unfold beyond the confines of the train car and the journey. Mia Barron’s frantic jilted lover injects a jolt of hilarity to the proceedings as she loudly explains her break up on the phone to the amusement and amazement of everyone else on the train. This is one of the rare moments of direct contact between the characters for whom she buys a round of drinks by way of apology for oversharing. Sparks fly between her and the veteran, at least in their heads, and throughout, there’s a will-they-won’t-they intrigue between the cartoon artist and the naval medic that is sometimes explored in fantasies about what they wished had happened. Tyne Rafaeli’s direction is sensitive in the main, but a little more modulation in some early delivery would perhaps have set a less hectoring tone from some characters.
The rolling stock and passage through the landscape are cleverly suggested through an elevated, square revolving stage which puts the actors slightly higher than you might expect and suggests the height of the passenger vis-à-vis the passing world on a long-distance train. On the set, designed by Arnulfo Maldonado, the train seats are movable allowing for new perspectives as we learn more about the individuals. The passing scenery is hinted at by subtle lighting overseen by Lap Chi Chu while a light rumbling sound effect and incidental music by Daniel Kluger add to the transitory nature of the story.
As the passengers disembark, we may surmise that the core intention of the play is to encourage us not to sit in silence avidly eavesdropping on our next journey but to engage with our fellow travelers–“only connect,” to quote E.M Forster. It would also not be surprising if, inspired by visions of the scenic route and the glass-roofed observation car, the real-life Coast Starlight sees an uptick of bookings in the wake of this deftly written play.