Intrigue and Confusion Meet on “The Bus”

I imagine most of we theatergoers have traveled enough to realize that a bus, like many other modes of transportation, can sometimes be a helpful conveyance, while at other times it may experience mechanical problems. It seems the same can be said of James
Lantz’ intriguing new play, THE BUS, currently in performance at the 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan. Directed by John Simpkins, this theatrical bus tour takes us on an oft-times troubling journey through the young lives of two likable adolescent boys as they discover their physical attraction to one another amid a conservative small town community that is
largely in the grip of the powerful Golden Rule Church. The resulting conflicts propel a plot that is sometimes compelling and sometimes puzzling.

With probably fewer than a hundred seats, the ninety minutes of intermission-free action play out on an intimate and minimal in-the-round set that consists mostly of a large wooden platform at center stage that serves as the controversial bus belonging to the church. It is controversial because, while belonging to the church, the inoperable bus is actually situated on the nearby property of Harry (Travis Mitchell), owner of Hamp’s Texaco Service Station. Harry wants nothing to do with the church and he wants the bus removed. But the well-connected church officials want the bus (with it’s proudly displayed lettering of “Golden Rule Bible Fellowship,”) to remain as a kind of landmark symbol for those arriving at this enormous church, a house of worship that is so large it has its own
Starbucks coffee shop. Adding to the conflict is Harry’s former wife, Sarah (Kerry McGann), herself an active member of the church, and as insistent as anyone that the bus must stay where it is.

Skillfully guiding us through these opening scenes, and those that follow, is talented Julia Lawler in the role of The Little Girl. While the stage is an essentially bare one, her
character serves quite effectively as a kind of narrator who, in a visually poetic way, describes each scene for the audience as the play progresses. I would have to agree with a comment from TheaterMania suggesting this production contains, “…more than a hint of Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town’.” But this aspect gives the play a unique structure and is brilliantly carried off thanks to the very believable Miss Lawler. Lighting designs of Chris Dallos were effective, and adding another authentic note to the production were the exceptionally convincing sound effects for everything from rainstorms, to passing cars.

A central conflict emerges when the bus becomes a secret late night meeting place for Sarah and Harry’s teenage son, Ian (Will Roland), and his high school buddy, Jordan (Bryan Fitzgerald). Ian lives with his mother, Sarah, who does her best to keep her reluctant son active in the church. Handsome Jordan is a loner with no interest in the
church, but he has clearly found a special friend in Ian when he remarks, “…with him I couldn’t remember what lonely was.” The sexual intimacy that finds its way into their tender friendship makes secrecy crucial for each rendezvous, and adds to the mounting tension of the piece. Both Fitzgerald and Roland succeed in warmly conveying the confusions and passions youth.

Mr. Mitchell is convincing as Ian’s somewhat distant and macho father who seems more interested in firm handshakes and his struggling business than in a real relationship with his son. McGann gives a solid performance as a mother who is somewhat distant from Ian herself, with her passion for the church seeming to sometimes take precedence over the lad’s struggles to understand his parents’ conflicts and his own emerging identity. Robert Nuner nicely plays Harry’s mechanic at the station, a pleasant old codger named, Sloat. But even the efforts of kindly Sloat cannot avoid the many explosive events that follow. To
say more would give away a number of unexpected plot twists. It may be there were too many of those, as it appeared the author might have struggled with several possible endings for the play and then decided to use them all. In the end, that decision seems to have deprived THE BUS of satisfying clarity in its conclusion. Still, for many this bus trip may be a ride worth taking.

THE BUS continues through October 30th. The performance schedule is Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday & Sunday at 7:30 PM; Friday – Saturday at 8:30 PM; and matinees Saturday at 2:30 & Sunday at 3:30 PM. Performances are at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues. Tickets are $25 ($17.50 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org. For
further information on the show, visit the play’s website at http://thebustheplay.com/ .

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About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the Lambs Club, he is also editor of The Lambs' Script. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at ThePeoplesCritic@earthlink.net.
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