note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Carl A. Rossi
Elma Duckworth … Ronete Levenson
Grace Hoyland … Karen MacDonald
Will Masters … Adam LeFevre
Cherie … Nicole Rodenburg
Dr. Gerald Lyman … Henry Stram
Carl … Will LeBow
Bo Decker … Noah Bean
Virgil … Stephen Lee Anderson
There are few sadder men in the history of the American theatre than William Inge (1913-73). He was Broadway’s hottest new playwright in the 1950s, turning out four hits in a row (COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA; PICNIC; BUS STOP; THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS) from which four equally successful films were made. He won a Pulitzer Prize for PICNIC and an Academy Award for his screenplay of SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS (1961). He was alcoholic, closeted, repressed and dysfunctional. Success brought little comfort; he lived a solitary, perhaps celibate, life. When he tried to change with the times and his plays became franker, more sensational, the critics and public abandoned him. He committed suicide at sixty years old, knowing that he had become America’s Forgotten Playwright.
Mr. Inge’s place in the pantheon is slightly lower than Tennessee Williams, his friend and inspiration; what Mr. Williams was to the American South, Mr. Inge was to the American Mid-West. Like Mr. Williams, he had his share of finger-pointers who focused on his sex-starved women, weak-willed men and muscular studs and challenged his outlook on love and marriage; time and distance have now allowed the canon of this gentle, tormented man to be seen once again on their own terms. SHEBA, PICNIC, BUS STOP and STAIRS may not be dramatically innovative but they remain solid, well-constructed entertainments, balanced between nostalgia and regret, and their spare Midwestern dialogue is artless and sincere --- budding playwrights wishing to create believable-sounding dialogue would do well to study Mr. Inge’s plays and, even better, to view them in production.
PICNIC was the Pulitzer winner but BUS STOP is Mr. Inge’s most popular play and his one out-and-out comedy (it had a respectable Broadway run but won no major prizes --- it was up against Mr. Williams’ CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, that season). Mr. Inge had previously written a slice of life entitled PEOPLE IN THE WIND which takes place in a small-town restaurant just outside of Kansas and peopled with its proprietress, a young waitress, a bus driver and his passengers which include a chanteuse being pursued by a love-struck cowpoke, a poetry-spouting drunk and two old maids (a charming little piece, this). For the full-length BUS STOP, Mr. Inge brought the chanteuse (Cherie) and her cowpoke (Bo) into the foreground: she has been abducted by him after a one-night romance; he wants to marry her and bring her back to his ranch in Montana but she has other plans. Bo has been given a fatherly sidekick (Virgil), a sheriff (Will) strolls in and out to keep the peace, the drunk (Dr. Lyman) not-so-innocently flirts with the naïve waitress (Elma), and the proprietress (Grace) slips upstairs with the bus driver (Carl). (The old maids have been discarded.) Instead of being wind-swept, the restaurant is snowed in and the characters interact while waiting for clear skies. BUS STOP is Mr. Inge’s healthiest, happiest treatise on the many faces of love: Cherie and Bo spar and smooch as a modern-day Kate and Petruchio, Elma develops a crush on the charming, lecherous Dr. Lyman, Grace and Carl steal love on the sly and Virgil’s devotion to Bo leaves him out in the cold at play’s end. (The film version starring Marilyn Monroe has a lengthy, added-on Prologue with the play’s restaurant and characters, minus Dr. Lyman, coming on board much, much later.)
No other Boston theatre rises or falls on the size of its stage-sets, alone, as does the Huntington --- all too often the vastness of the B.U. stage leads her designers down the wrong path, filling all corners of this barn clear up to the flies, and then some. Earlier this year, upon hearing of this BUS STOP, I scribbled, “I am already wondering how long it would take one of Mr. Inge’s waitresses to cross from, say, stage left to serve a customer on the other side of the world --- that is, stage right…” and, sadly, now I know: James Noone has designed a Midwest Grand Central Station rather than a humble diner set in the midst of snow and open blue sky; not only does Mr. Noone’s design deny suspension of disbelief (so huge an establishment, yet still with an offstage outhouse --- and wanna talk about Grace’s heating bills on her coffee-and-donuts budget?), it wreaks havoc with the performance: Directing in his usual slick, hard Broadway manner where punchlines replace heartbeats, Nicholas Martin places his actors as color-accents here and there to fill out the stage rather than grant them believable tableaus: thus, one character may shout (yes, shout!) from a table at farrrrrrrr stage right to another who pulls up a chair to listen --- at a table, center stage (or in reverse with a center-stage table and a counter stool, farrrrrrrr stage left) --- considering that BUS STOP is a multiple-character study, how can there be true interaction, here, with everyone standing or sitting so farrrrrrrr apart from each other? (Such staging also exposes the focus in/focus out carpentry of the script: when several characters are bellowing here, others are playing statues, there…this would not be as noticeable in a smaller set.) Twixt mise-en-scene and direction, the characterizations be damned until the last twenty minutes of resolution where everyone drops into normal speaking registers and creep toward each other, allowing for some genuine visual and aural pleasure (and symbolically, too, right after the road has been cleared).
Fortunately, Cherie and Bo Decker can run on lung power, alone --- rowdy comedy from beginning to end. If only Nicole Rodenburg could have been coaxed into lending some depth to her likeable Cherie: this chanteuse should be attracted to her cowboy-lover, throughout, no matter was she says or does --- she’s just waiting for him to morph from caveman to prince; to Ms. Rodenburg’s credit, her “Old Black Magic” number is both sexy and tacky. Noah Bean makes a handsome, presentational Bo, no more, no less. Karen MacDonald and Will LeBow coast through Grace and Carl, yet I prefer their coasting to other actors going full-tilt though Mr. Martin has Ms. MacDonald double-underline the fact that Grace is a woman in heat --- guess what she’s REALLY going upstairs for, wink, wink, nudge, nudge (come to think of it, is this production set in the 1950s or what?); Stephen Lee Anderson is little more than a smiling surface as Virgil --- his unspoken love for Bo must be apparent when he declines to get back on the bus. Dr. Lyman should be a charming professorial letch; Elma, a small-town girl with a growing crush on him --- Henry Stram’s Mr. Peepers-like turn is too high-strung, too neurotic for schoolgirl-romance, and Ronete Levenson is a tightly-wound, cutesy-coy ingénue whose mannered voice, alone, works against Mr. Inge’s folksy tone. Adam LeFevre turns in the most convincing performance as Will: soft-spoken as a rule, loud when he has to be, and gently sly when putting two-and-two together --- and, as a bonus, this Will comes off as regional.
Had the Huntington mounted BUS STOP on its smaller stage at the BCA, things might have been different. Since the current production cannot dwindle in scenery, may those final twenty minutes of warmth start to invade the two acts of machinery that precedes them.
Someday, somewhere, a theatre company will perform BUS STOP with PEOPLE IN THE WIND as a curtain raiser, using the same actors and set. What a wonderful opportunity to show BUS STOP as Before and After --- and may I also request Ms. MacDonald as Lola and Mr. LeBeau as Doc in COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA --- in a scaled-down Midwestern house, of course?