The Coast Starlight, by Keith Bunin, marks Mia Barron’s sixth show at Lincoln Center Theater. “It feels like home,” Barron told me recently. “My daughter grew up backstage here. She learned to walk when I was doing Domesticated. She loved interacting with the women soccer players during The Wolves. But she’s 10 now, and in fifth grade back home in L.A. Her absence makes the show feel different to me.”

What’s also different is Barron’s role this time around. It’s the juiciest she’s had here. She plays Liz, a woman around 40, and she boards The Coast Starlight having just ended the latest in a series of difficult relationships. To say she comes onto the train in extremis is a little like saying John Malkovich made his entrance in the Lanford Wilson play Burn This a little coked-out. She cracks The Coast Starlight open, and the audience explodes.

“My entrance breaks the rules of the play,” Barron said. “I’m on the phone, and I’m the only person who audibly holds onto the outside world once she’s onboard. I’ve got all this anger about my relationship breaking up, and I’ve got to release it. The other characters make imagined comments about what I’m shouting, but I think of the entrance as a monologue.”

Liz, it turns out, isn’t one of those people we’ve all encountered in real life – on a plane, in a theater, or, more to the point, on an Amtrak “quiet car” – who violate the rules of a public space and, when confronted, get defensive. “Liz is truly apologetic,” Barron said, “when she realizes she’s subjected everyone to her venting. She makes amends by buying everyone a drink.” Barron added: “The play is a communal act, among us actors and between us and the audience, and Liz is eventually accepted by the other characters as part of their imagined community -- as someone, like themselves, who is grappling with a major dilemma.”

Barron is not surprised that her entrance evokes a response every night, but she and the cast did not, when the play was first done, under the assured direction of Tyne Rafaeli, expect such a high degree of hilarity. “When you rehearse a play, it’s easy to forget the number of things the characters discuss that strike people, upon first encounter, as absurd. Even though those things are familiar from real life. During my entrance especially, and with all us actors during the play, we have to be careful not to play to the laughs. Then you’re pandering.”

Barron has been involved with The Coast Starlight since its first informal reading, pre-pandemic, at Bunin’s apartment, in Brooklyn. “It’s a home I’m very familiar with,” Barron said. “I had my baby shower there. Keith and I have been friends for a long time, and we have witnessed each other’s lives unfold.” Barron’s first professional job in New York, after graduate school at NYU, was in the early Bunin play The World Over, at Playwrights Horizons. She said: “Both as a person and as a writer, he’s always had the gift of empathy, but I think in the new play that empathy has reached a deeper level.”

Bunin latest character for Barron has what she calls “the gift of sexual openness.” She continued: ‘Liz is a physical person, both in her love life and in her work. She’s always relied upon sex to help get what she wants. She’s been in a succession of lousy relationships with men, but even in the immediate pain of her latest break-up she starts to get a glimmer of what it is she really craves.”

All the characters in The Coast Starlight are at a crisis point, and, even though the evening garners a lot of laughs, the discussion of life problems is intense. How does that intensity affect the actors? “It’s a compact play, with no intermission,” replied Barron, “but doing it every night really takes it out of you. Even though it can be exhausting it’s also very rewarding. The affection the cast have for each other backstage is palpable. This is the first play many of us have done since the pandemic, and we all missed the intimacy of backstage life. We were starved for connection – like the characters in the play.”

Brendan Lemon is a freelance journalist in New York.