Regional Reviews: San Diego
Also see Bill's review of Romeo and Juliet
I provide this information as background for Keith Bunin's play, The Coast Starlight, which is currently having a first-rate world premiere production at La Jolla Playhouse.
Long distance train travel was once a luxury, but in Mr. Bunin's telling, has become appealing at least in part because security is lax. There's only a slight possibility, for example, that train personnel might check your identification to see if the name on your ticket matches. In fact, TJ (Nate Mann), the play's central character, is traveling on such a ticket. But he's young and innocent looking, so no one would think to look. In fact, TJ would have liked to have struck up a conversation with Jane (Camila Canó-Flaviá), a young woman who boarded the train with him in Los Angeles. Jane would have been interested in a conversation, too, but as she's a sketch artist, she contents herself with drawing the other people riding in her car. She does, however, notice that TJ looks as though he might be in the military.
At the San Luis Obispo stop, Noah (Rhys Coiro) boards. Noah tends bar, does odd jobs, and housesits a boat. He's ex-military, and he "gets" TJ more than TJ gets himself. In Salinas, Liz (Mia Barron) boards. Liz has just come from the Esalen Institute where, in the midst of a workshop, her partner told her that he wanted to end their relationship. In San Jos, Ed (Rob Yang) boards. Ed travels for a living, and he has stayed in a lot of mid-level chain hotels. He hates both his job and his life. In Oakland, Anna (Stephanie Weeks) is the last to board. Anna has been to San Francisco on a sad family errand. She is a university financial aid counselor, and she's good at empathizing with those in need.
Before the train reaches Seattle, TJ needs to make a significant decision. If he waits until he gets to Seattle, his decision will have been made for him. The people riding with him provide models of what his life might be like if he completes the trip. TJ thinks about these things, but they don't seem to affect him deeply. They do affect him, though, just as he affects his fellow passengers.
Is the play intended to explore the possibilities that arise when people travel together? Perhaps. Everyone learns something, some are changed more than others. Life goes on. It's all done with insight and eloquence, though, and maybe that's why it's a fascinating 95 minutes spent in the theatre.
And it's the actors who make it fascinating, guided by Tyne Rafaeli's sensitive, creative, and detailed direction. While each character is a type, at least on first impression, each actor plays with that type and has emotional surprises to share.
The cast is generally well-supported by the production. Arnulfo Maldonado's scenic design consists of sets of chairs you might find on a train, which can be reconfigured as the emotional climate changes. The chairs are set on a raised platform that rotates as the chairs move. Denitsa Bliznakova's costumes look like what the characters would wear on a long train trip. Daniel Kluger's sound design keeps each of the characters in focus as needed. Lap Chi Chu's lighting design includes a unique problem: how to use a white screen hanging prominently over the set where no projections ever appear. The design settled for fuzzy, abstract mixes of color, which work, but never settled why the screen was there in the first place.
In what could have become merely an acting exercise, playwright, actors, director and production combine to intrigue and satisfy.
The Coast Starlight, through September 15, 2019, at the La Jolla Playhouse, Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, University of California, 2910 La Jolla Village Dr., La Jolla CA. The performance schedule is Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. For tickets and information, call the box office at 858-550-1010 or visit lajollaplayhouse.org.