Will the bus ever come to take these people away? Such was the question racing through my mind while watching Lisa Ebersole's painfully dull and slow-moving People Die That Way, which takes place in a bus station. You might not die from watching this play, but you'll probably want to end the pain after having to sit through such tedium.
Ebersole's drama focuses on five individuals, two couples and a single woman, waiting for buses at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. On Barbara Monoian's stark set, comprised of two rows of seats, atrociously lit only by fluorescent lighting, we first meet Daniel (Ken Forman) and Rhonda (Rhonda Keyser), a married couple. The very pregnant Rhonda and Daniel engage in conversation, the type that many of us have probably had while trying to pass the time. Their quotidian exchanges finally turn to the topic of the costs of Rhonda's pre-natal yoga which Daniel thinks are too expensive, causing a tiff to develop between the two. Intrigued yet? No? It doesn't really matter as Daniel and Rhonda decide to cool off by taking a walk, not returning until the final fifteen minutes of the play. Why are these characters here and why do they return at all? Their presence seems entirely gratuitous.
In the meantime, we meet Liv (Monique Vukovic) and Sam (Dahl Colson), another couple. Liv and Sam debate the pros and cons of getting a cat, only to be interrupted by the arrival of Megan (played by playwright Ebersole), a former high school classmate of Liv's. Liv and Sam, it seems, have been having relationship issues, oh so unsubtly depicted by their inability to communicate. Inexplicably and unconvincingly, within only a matter of minutes, Sam and Megan have established a "bond," and Sam is convinced that he can "really talk" to Megan in a way that he presumably can't with Liv. Meanwhile, Liv seems threatened by Megan's put-together life, and confesses to not being able to pay rent on her apartment in Brooklyn. Little real action occurs in the play with the three characters only leaving the waiting area at various intervals to search for food and bus information.
Clearly, each of Ebersole's characters carries around with him or her feelings of hurt, anger, and sadness, but Ebersole's flat hyper-realistic dialogue never rises to the occasion to communicate anything more profound than what is conveyed by the dialogue's banal surface meaning. Yes, one could argue that such mundane dialogue is a symbol of the inability for these characters to communicate, but Ebersole is no Mamet, and no scathing truths are contained within. Realistic dialogue, for all of its outward simplicity, is actually quite difficult to get right and pull off. Ebersole's play aims for verisimilitude with all the stammerings and uneven exchanges of everyday speech, but Ebersole fails to realize that good theater needs to transcend the mundane and reveal depth below the surface, something that People Die That Way never does.
Unfortunately, Ebersole is to blame not only for the lackluster script, but also for the play's deathly slow direction as well. The play's mood never peaks or valleys, but stays at an even keel throughout, making it even harder to maintain interest. Her staging, while allowing the characters to walk freely through the space if they really were in a bus station, often feels haphazard and unfocused. Similarly, it might be "realistic" to insert pauses into the dialogue and indulge in the silences as Ebersole has chosen to do, but this isn't Pinter, and the dead spaces just make the script's shortcomings even more pronounced.
The play has a few funny lines, handled most deftly by Monique Vukovic, the strongest actor in the ensemble. It's never made clear what Liz's (Vukovic) underlying issues are or why she acts as defensively as she does. Still, Liz is the most developed character and Vukovic does her best to make her an interesting figure. The other actors do serviceable work with playwright Ebersole surprisingly offering the weakest line readings of the bunch.
Ultimately, the bus arrives, which of course means that the play is over and it's time for characters to depart. Have we learned much? Not really. But at least now the characters can take their sad lives and problems to someone else who will listen.
Tom Noonan/Choices Theater Project