Review: The Huntington's Bus Stop

All aboard for this smooth ride
By STEVE VINEBERG  |  September 29, 2010

CROWD PLEASER: In this savvy, attractive production, supporting characters like Carl (Will LeBow) and Grace (Karen MacDonald) generate as much interest as the protagonists.

Bus Stop is hardly a neglected masterpiece, or even William Inge's best play (that would be Picnic), but when you watch Nicholas Martin's production, the Huntington's season opener (at the Boston University Theatre through October 17), you understand why it was a hit on Broadway in 1955. It's a cannily crafted entertainment that needs showmanship and a sturdy ensemble to make it memorable. At the Huntington it has both, in addition to a magnificent set by Martin's favorite collaborator, James Noone, that frames the small-town Kansas diner where the action takes place against a snowy expanse that looks like a candied big-studio-era Hollywood soundstage.

A late-winter snowstorm halts a handful of bus passengers at Grace's Diner in the early hours of the morning. These include an alcoholic ex-prof (Henry Stram) with a taste for teenage girls; a pair of Montana cowboys, Bo (Noah Bean) and Virgil (Stephen Lee Anderson); and Cherie (Nicole Rodenburg), the low-rent songstress Bo — who's had no previous experience with love — has fallen head over heels for and strong-armed into accompanying him back to his ranch. While Grace (Karen MacDonald) dallies in her upstairs flat with the driver, Carl (Will LeBow), and Dr. Lyman plies his charms on a credulous adolescent waitress named Elma (Ronete Levenson), Will (Adam LeFevre), the local sheriff, tries to restrain Bo from foisting himself on Cherie. The play is a romantic comedy that strives to bring together the callow cowboy and the put-upon club singer. But they're tossed into the middle of one of those Petrified Forest settings that gathers disparate and colorful strangers, with the supporting characters generating as much interest as the protagonists.

Martin has a gift for this kind of crowd pleaser: he's an old hand at shifting tones and getting full value out of banal but effectively structured scenes. And he's a first-rate actor's director who's landed a fine cast. Bean has to struggle against the limitations of his role — the way Bo is written, as a boisterous Neanderthal with a neon heart on his sleeve, the challenge is to keep the audience from wanting to throw a chair at him — but he handles it more skillfully than anyone else I've seen. It's not his fault that he can't slip his role on like an old jacket — which is what everyone else on stage manages to pull off. MacDonald and LeBow, long-time acting buddies at the ART, are so relaxed and funny together that you expect them to finish each other's sentences. Levenson reads her lines with a bubble in her voice, and she provides an earnest foil for Stram's theatrical roué moves. (Stram is so deft that he even lightens the masochism in the part — Lyman's moments of self-loathing.) LeFevre, a veteran character actor who's never less than completely convincing, turns the familiar role of the kind-hearted lawman into a three-dimensional creation. And Anderson brings an authentic country style and unexpected poignance to Bo's pal and counselor Virgil, the last figure on stage as the third-act curtain falls. LeFevre and Anderson are truly marvelous.

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