Off-Broadway Review: THE COAST STARLIGHT (Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on March 13, 2023

in Theater-New York


Ever been on public transportation and wondered about the people seated around you? Not just whether or not they are nut-jobs or pose any physical threat but who they really are? What they are dealing with? What you would say to them? Could they one day be a friend? Or more? In Lincoln Center Theater’s The Coast Starlight, which opened tonight March 13 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, playwright Keith Bunin moves that notion from possibility to reality. Set aboard an actual Amtrak train called Coast Starlight which makes a daily run from Los Angeles to Seattle, Bunin introduces six characters in search of a connection. However, instead of making connection, they spend their ride up the West Coast thinking about what they would have said to each other, how that would have been received and what would have been the outcome had they actually spoken with each other. All this thinking makes for an intriguing intellectual exercise but not particularly moving theater. The show boasts good performances all around and competent direction by Tyne Rafaeli. While there are a few compelling moments, this deep dive into “what would have happened if…” is not very satisfying overall. To paraphrase the old adage, perhaps some things are best left unsaid.


On a train ride from Los Angeles to Seattle a young man named T.J. (a sensitive Will Harrison) boards, trying to figure out the next steps for his difficult life. Tall, handsome and wearing a military hair cut, he is troubled and his life is in transition. He is joined on the train by Jane (an appealing Camila Canó-Flaviá), a quirky if anxious young woman, who works as a Disney Studios-type animator. They open the show talking to each other about what they would have said had they actually spoken to each other but they, in reality, haven’t — though we watch them doing just that. Being a cartoonist, Jane draws pictures of everyone on the train without their knowledge. Next to board is Noah (an imposing Rhys Coiro). Noah is a drifter, perhaps ex-military, perhaps just a forty-something guy with no roots but plenty of wisdom. He becomes a kind of older brother figure to T.J. — sizing him up pretty quickly, but maybe not, since they never actually speak (but they do). Next on board is Liz (a hilarious, multi-layered, show-stealing Mia Barron), a thirty-something young woman who has lived a lot of life in her relatively short time on Earth. Fresh from a couple’s retreat meant to help fix her relationship but actually helped to end it, she too rides towards an uncertain future. Next on is Ed (a moving Jon Norman Schneider) a struggling, divorced, resigned-to-his-lot travelling salesman trying his best to provide for his children and himself. Last on is Anna (a solid Michelle Wilson) a lesbian wife and mother who, due to recent tumult in her family, is not sure about her next steps either. Though all the passengers are dealing with difficult situations of their own, young T.J.’s precarious life supersedes. All take concerned interest in this uncertain young man, offering advice and direction on how he should live his life, though none actually speak to him. Or do they?


Bunin is a good writer but structurally, the play feels like six, long-form character monologues held together under the guise of a train trip. The conceit of the show, sharing the private thoughts one has about strangers and having those thoughts engage each other is a very good idea on paper. In this execution, however, it just becomes confusing because they are not actually talking to each other but mostly thinking at each other. Yet they can somehow hear each other’s thoughts and converse in their minds? As an audience, we end up getting more told about what happens instead of watching an actual experience.


While the conceit of the show can probably be smoothed out with further development, the bigger problem is the central character. Nothing against the excellent acting work of Mr. Harrison but T.J. is just not that interesting of a person. He’s a nice, young, troubled man in a world filled with nice, young, troubled men. The writing at this point doesn’t justify why T.J and his problems are so immediately compelling to this diverse group of strangers and why he has such lasting effect on them for years to come. Is the production borrowing a page from the film business?


Is the pronounced interest in T.J. due to the fact that he is young, white, male and heterosexual — so the world will naturally offer guidance, support, interest and protection — simply because he exists? Arnulfo Maldonado’s impressive, minimalist train car smoothly shape-shifts the POV just by moving chairs around. Lap Chi Chu’s lighting and 59 Productions’ projections provide a beautiful and impressionistic interpretation of the world whizzing by, with just enough definition to give the sense of train travel but not so defining as to contradict the permutable reality onstage.


In The Coast Starlight by Keith Bunin, six passengers take a train trip up the beautiful California coast. As audience members, we get to ride along with them. If you want a trip for your brain, keep seated. If you want a trip for your heart, maybe move to another car.


The Coast Starlight
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
Lincoln Center
ends on April 16, 2023
for tickets, visit LCT

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