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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
The people who've expressed a lack of enthusiasm for seeing a fifty-year-old play best remembered as a film starring Marilyn Monroe by a playwright who though once regarded as one of America's premier dramatists is now rarely produced are in for a pleasant surprise. Thanks to Frears perky direction, exemplary performances and expert stagecraft, Bus Stop remains a solidly entertaining slice of Americana, a colorful portrait of how Americans Midwesterners looked and sounded in the 1950s. It can be lumped with a whole genre of plays in which a restaurant or bar becomes a gathering place for a diverse group of people to air their deeper and surface concerns , either regularly (as in The Iceman Cometh, The Night of the Iguana or even sitcoms like Cheers), or as a result of a disaster like the snowstorm that strands Bus Stop's passengers at a road stop diner. Yet, this production adds up to an enjoyably fresh theater experience.
Frears has chosen to move the time frame to 1950, five years earlier than its premiere in 1955 when a reference to Marlon Brando in the 1953 Julius Caesar would have been accurate. The director's reasoning is that this marks the century's midpoint, between a still innocent and hopeful post World War II year and the beginning of wrong moves at home and abroad. But as the shift in dates seems unnecessary since and the color-blind casting of Carl the bus driver and Cowboy Bo's fatherly sidekick Virgil is something of a stretch given the Midwestern mores of the period. But why quibble when these actors, like everyone in the cast, are so spectacularly good and there are many directorial touches to add to the pleasures of this production.
To counterpoint the prematurely experienced Cherie we have booksmart Elma. She's not much younger than Cherie but still naive enough to almost get herself into trouble with Professor Lyman, an older man who is on that bus to escape from past difficulties resulting from his taste for whiskey and young girls.
Frears and his able cast make Takeshi Kata's authentic diner bristle with life throughout the briskly paced, intermissionless hour and forty minutes. Elizabeth Banks, a neighborhood girl (she grew up in Pittsfield), is as prettyand curvacious a Cherie as you could wish for as well as believably desperate and vulnerable. Logan Marshall-Green is a wild and crazy Bo -- but not too much so for a believable transformation after he gets his comeuppance courtesy of Sheriff Will Masters (Daniel Oreskes taking a break from his usual role as a heavy, to play the Sheriff with endearing Gary Cooper-like authority). Another likeable and mature character is Virgil, the father figure in Bo's life (played with quiet dignity by Leon Addison Brown).
Elizabeth Marvel once again lives up to her name as the diner's owner. Her Grace Hoylard brings to mind a bunch of tough self-sufficient women played in many B-Movies by the likes of Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino and Eve Arden. John Douglas Thompson as Carl is charismatic enough to make one see why Grace would leave Elma in charge long enough for her to ask Carl to her apartment to effect a quick cure for her "headache."
Good as everyone is, if I had to pick a favorite, it would be Laura Heisler. Her eager to learn and live Elma is an absolute delight. (Heisler was also a standout earlier this season in Top Girls). No wonder that even the lecherous, boozy Dr. Lyman's thinks better of luring her to a rendezvous in Topeka. Bill Camp handles Lyman's drunken brilliance with considerable finnesse and makes the most of the fact that he gets some of the script's most incisive and funny lines -- his reference to his run-in with "a progressive little college in the East" got an especially big laugh in this theater located on the campus of a progressive (if not so little) college in the East.
To conclude with mention of some of the previously mentioned, pleasure enhancing directorial touches. The scene to scene shifts are handled smoothly and with minimal fuss-- a welcome relief from the overly busy scene changes by troops of interns trying to make prop moving entertaining. The intra-scene music from the band in the balcony really is entertaining. The set's inclusion of a view of the street beyond Grace's Diner is used to good effect for entrances and exits and the fight between Bo and the Sheriff. It's all beautifully lit by Ben Stanton to let us see the snow gradually replaced with sunlight.
While there's been a renewed interest in Tennessee Williams, who encouraged Inge to abandon his work as a newspaper drama critic to write not only this play but Picnic (which won a Pulitzer) , Come Back Little Sheba and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Inge remains respected but neglected. So a word to the wise, see this well-acted and staged Bus Stop while you can.
Consumer Note: When you go to WTF, try to fit in a visit to the Williams College Museum of Art's stunning exhibition entitled Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film, 1880-1910. There's a lot to see. The legends are fascinating so give yourself at least two hours. The Museum is open every day except Mondays and admission is free.