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The Coast Starlight

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 13, 2023

The Cast
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
While watching playwright Keith Bunin's The Coast Starlight, opening tonight at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, I kept coming up with alternate titles: Strangers on a Train, Ships that Pass in the Night, or even Close Encounters of the First Kind.

The actual title is the name of a real Amtrak train. The focus is on six passengers on the 36-hour ride between Los Angeles and Seattle. It is a risky idea for a play, a more-or-less plotless character study, but one in which a good many of the conversations we overhear among the characters apparently never actually take place, leaving us confused as to what to believe about any of them.

Generally speaking, we accept that any play is a work of fiction, a product of the imagination of the playwright. We are expected to buy into whatever premise is placed before us. But it's hard to willingly suspend our disbelief when we are constantly fed lines like "if he had told me that, I'm not sure what I would've said," or "I wanted to tell her," or "that's exactly why I didn't say anything to you."

But let's suppose that it is the audience that is most privy to everyone's thoughts, or at least to the thoughts of the presumptive narrator, T. J. (Will Harrison), whose opening words, "A few years back I took the Coast Starlight north to Seattle," suggest that this is one person's recollections about what for him was a time of a life-altering decision that coalesced during this journey.

T. J.'s first imagined encounter is with Jane (Camila Canó-Flaviá), who is sitting with a sketchpad in her lap, quietly drawing some of the passengers, including him. Their story, as it enfolds in T. J.'s mind, becomes a sweetly romantic interlude as well as one of the paths T. J. will never be able to follow. Or, as he explains to us and justifies to himself in retrospect: "I realized I couldn't talk to her, because I couldn't tell her the truth about myself."

As time passes, T. J. conjures up four other passengers: Noah (Rhys Coiro), a former soldier who did a tour of duty in Afghanistan and whose life has not been the same since; Ed (Jon Norman Schneider), feeling trapped in a job he hates; the kind-hearted Anna (Michelle Wilson), who is returning home after dealing with a distressing family crisis; and Liz (Mia Barron, a comic delight), who is escaping from a recently collapsed relationship and whom we first meet during a highly animated phone conversation that everyone aboard the train can overhear.

Projected images representing flying-by scenery, along with seating arrangements that occasionally move about the stage into different configurations, help with the illusion that pretty much everything we see and hear exists only in the not-altogether-reliable recollections and invented conversations from the mind of the troubled T. J. But beyond that, there's not a lot for us to latch onto. Except for the unpredictable mayhem that is Mia Barron's Liz, the characters are not interesting enough for even Jane to want to sketch, and the 95-minute production of The Coast Starlight makes for a long train ride.

The Coast Starlight
Through April 16, 2023
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
Lincoln Center, 150 W 65th Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: