Strangers on a train: an interview with playwright Keith Bunin
Everybody knows train travel isn’t what it used to be. Amtrak is hardly the Orient Express. Still trains exert a powerful hold on our imaginations. And in our celluloid fantasies: “Twentieth Century,” “The Lady Vanishes,” “Double Indemnity,” “North by Northwest,” “Silver Streak.” On stage it’s rarer to find instances of train travel. But now comes Keith Bunim’s sparkling “The Coast Starlight” at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. This adroit and vivid play places six disparate passengers, in a single coach, on the Coast Starlight train, as it embarks on its 35 hour journey from Los Angeles to Seattle. By the time the train reaches its destination, the passengers are no longer strangers.
Bunin is a prolific playwright whose other plays include “The Busy World is Hushed,” “The Credeaux Canvas,” and “The World Over,” all presented by Playwrights Horizons. Bunin has also written for the screen; his credits include Disney/Pixar’s “Onward,” “Horns” and the upcoming “Which Brings Me to You.” His plays have been produced regionally at, among other venues, La Jolla Playhouse, City Theatre Pittsburgh and Madison Repertory Theatre.
He now lives in – and loves – Brooklyn Heights. In fact he’s a fan of all things Brooklyn: when I interviewed him via Zoom he was wearing a Nets tee-shirt and cap. And later in the interview he waxes rhapsodic about favorite Brooklyn Heights bars and restaurants.
I begin by asking Bunin which of the six characters in “The Coast Starlight” he created first.
Keith Bunin: T.J., the Navy medic, came first. He’s a character I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I’ve lived here in Brooklyn since 1995 but I spent three years in California, working at Pixar.I also worked at La Jolla Playhouse, which commissioned “The Coast Starlight.” This play came out of various trips I took around California after work. I did a play at La Jolla Playhouse, “Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir,” which was performed on-site at an actual San Diego bar. And many of the bartenders were ex-servicemen, because San Diego, of course, is a big military town. I met two people who inspired the two servicemen in the play. Then, when I was working at Pixar in Emeryville, California, I stayed at a Hyatt House across the street from the Amtrak station. And I took several trips on the Coastal Starlight. I also became friends with many of the animators and story artists at Pixar.
Eagle: Is that why the character of Jane in your play is a story artist?
KB: Yes, exactly. When I worked at Pixar it was at the time when women first started making inroads into animation jobs, which had previously been all male. The story artists create the characters who will eventually be animated. The story artists help create the visual style of the movie.
Eagle: Where are Jane’s parents from originally?
KB: Well, that involves something that’s very important to me about the play. As I write in my introduction, none of the six characters have a specific ethnic or racial identity. They should reflect the diversity of California. So I have left it to Camila [Cano-Flavia], the actress who plays Jane, to figure out her ethnicity. I hesitate to reveal her own secrets. In future productions of the play there are a bunch of places Jane could be from.
Eagle: The character Liz is a real live wire: she enters talking loudly on her cell phone, she’s oblivious of all the other passengers on board. Did you deliberately want to inject some levity at this point?
KB: Yes I absolutely did, particularly because T.J.’s dilemma is deeply serious. And T.J. and Noah (an ex-serviceman also on board) are introverts while Jane, as evidenced by her portrait sketching, is an observer. So I thought it would be fun to have someone like Liz join the ensemble.
Eagle: Is Noah the counter-balance to T.J.?
KB: When I wrote the play in 2017 we were still at war in Afghanistan.
Eagle: The “forever war…”
KB: Yes, the forever war. These men (Noah and T.J.) are probably about 15 years apart in age yet they’ve both fought in the same war. But there is a real plurality in their political beliefs, a real plurality in their relationship to the service. I wanted to make sure there was a multiplicity of representation of what it means to be in the military.
Eagle: For me, the characters of Jane and T.J. represent hope and optimism. Is that how you wrote them?
KB: Yes, I think so. Those two characters have so much in front of them. Obviously T.J.’s situation is extremely dangerous and dire. But all of these characters, even the most depressed of them, have a great sense of fortitude and survival. I think the play is hopeful, but without portraying life as being easier than it actually is.
Eagle: What do you think eventually happens to T.J.?
KB: It depends on what day you ask me! Let’s be honest. There’s something T.J. says to Anna at the end of the play: “I’m alive but that’s all I want to tell you.” I’m hopeful on some nights when I watch the play that he’s able to find a certain level of peace and a certain level of home. When I talk with Tyne [Rafaeli, the director of the play] and Will [Harrison, who plays T.J.] we all go back and forth in terms of what happens to him after he gets off the train.
Eagle: For me, “The Coast Starlight” is reminiscent of one of Tennessee Williams’ memory plays. Is that a fair description to you?
KB: Certainly Tennessee Williams is a great playwright and I am very grateful to be compared to him in any way. However, I will tell you the two playwrights who most explicitly influenced this play. One is John Guare, whose play “Six Degrees of Separation,” was one of the first plays I saw when I moved to New York to go to college in 1990. In fact, I saw it at the Mitz E. Newhouse [the theater where “The Coastal Starlight” is currently playing.] The great thing about John Guare, for me, is that he is so relaxed about the fact that the audience is there and is part of the event. He is great at giving you this sense that we’re all here together to solve the problem of the play, we’re not meant to be sitting back passively in our seats. So John Guare inspired one part of “The Coast Starlight. The other inspiration for me is Lanford Wilson, an amazing playwright who wrote “The Hot L Baltimore” and “Balm in Gilead.” Lanford Wilson was a master at writing plays about how people inhabit public spaces in this country – and how people from very different backgrounds and economic classes can find ways to coexist and harmonize with each other. And he’s so good at writing about American working class and middle class life, in a deeply non-condescending way. So those are the two playwrights who really influenced me in the writing of this play. But, of course, Tennessee Williams and Thornton Wilder, particularly in the way I have the cast address the audience. I mean, you stand on the shoulders of those who came before you.
Eagle: My last question – you seem to know the route of the Coast Starlight very well. Have you taken it in its entirety?
KB: I have never taken it in its entirety. I’ve taken it in chunks. I didn’t know a lot of people outside of work when I lived in the Bay area so I decided I’m going to explore as much of the West Coast as I can. So I went up to Oregon, down to Southern California.
Eagle: So that’s when the seeds for the play were planted.
KB: Yes, absolutely.
“The Coast Starlight” is currently at Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse until April 16.
Keith Bunin is the author of the plays THE BUSY WORLD IS HUSHED, THE CREDEAUX CANVAS, and THE WORLD OVER, all of which premiered at Playwrights Horizons. His other plays include SAM BENDRIX AT THE BON SOIR (La Jolla Playhouse/City Theatre Pittsburgh), THE UNBUILT CITY (New York Stage and Film), 10 MILLION MILES (Atlantic Theater Company), and THE PRINCIPALITY OF SORROWS (Pure Orange Productions). His screenwriting credits include Disney/Pixar’s ONWARD, HORNS, and the upcoming WHICH BRINGS ME TO YOU. He was also a writer for the HBO TV series IN TREATMENT. He lives in Brooklyn.
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