In 2014, Keith Bunin took a writing job on Onward, a Disney/Pixar movie that was released in 2020. He moved to Emeryville California, a small East Bay city where Pixar is located. “Initially, I was staying at a Hyatt House,” said Bunin, who spoke to me the other day on a rehearsal break from The Coast Starlight, his play that will begin performances in LCT’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater on February 16th.
“The job was 9 to 5,” Bunin continued, “and I didn’t really know anyone in the area so I cast about for things to do in my off hours.” One option was obvious: “The Hyatt was next door to the Amtrak station, and Emeryville is a stop on The Coast Starlight, the 36-hour train that travels between Los Angeles and Seattle.”
Bunin, who was raised in upstate New York and came to New York to study film at NYU and went on to graduate work at Columbia, began riding that train occasionally. Those journeys furnished the genesis for his new play, which received its premiere at La Jolla Playhouse in 2019, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, who returns for the LCT staging, as do three of the actors: Mia Barron, Camila Canó-Flaviá, and Rhys Coiro. “I felt very solitary on those trips,” Bunin said. “And I began thinking about what it was like to be alone in public. And what others around me in the train might be turning over in their heads during a long journey.”
The play is a series of imagined encounters among six characters, three men and three women, all traveling solo. “You don’t take a long journey alone,” Bunin commented, “without having a deep reason for it. You’re between spaces and probably full of expectation about what’s going to happen when you arrive.”
In a train or plane, part of our interest in strangers around us has to do with finding some aspect of them attractive. Bunin’s touching and funny comedy-drama acknowledges that tendency. “When we think about a nearby stranger, we sometimes find ourselves fantasizing about them romantically. One of the characters in the play is thinking about ending her first real relationship. She’s at a vulnerable place, and she’s wondering if she’ll ever be as deeply in love again. Imagining another possible love story with a stranger on the train helps her believe she might conceivably be able to move on from a relationship she might have outgrown.”
One of the play’s characters is a veteran and another is in active service. Bunin’s interest in the lives of the military began a decade ago, when he did an earlier play at La Jolla Playhouse, as part of its Without Walls Festival. “The play was performed in a bar in San Diego, which is a city that has a large population of service-people, both active and retired. Most of the bartenders had served in the military, and I spent a lot of time talking with them. Their political views and their experiences of military service were incredibly varied and nuanced, and they directly inspired the characters in the play.”
Bunin continued: “The fun of writing a play like this is figuring out how these six incredibly disparate characters can argue and debate while still finding common ground they can all stand on. I’ve always liked that quote of Grace Paley: ‘I don’t argue when there’s real disagreement.’ It’s not interesting in theater or in life when people are stuck in their positions.”
Bunin has a mind well-stocked with film and theater references. He counts John Guare and Lanford Wilson as signature references for his stage work, including for The Coast Starlight.
“The first play I saw in the Newhouse,” Bunin said, “was the revival of The House of Blue Leaves. Guare’s plays, as different as they are, share something I love: the notion that it’s foolish to pretend the audience isn’t in the theater. They’re here. They’re part of the event.”
As for Wilson, Bunin admires his ability to throw together a disparate group of people and find the humanity of all of them. “One of my favorite plays is The Hot L Baltimore,” Bunin said, “and I especially love the way Wilson bounces 15 characters off each other in the public space of the hotel lobby. And in Balm in Gilead, the way he bends time and space to tell the stories of all those friends and strangers in and around that Village cafe.”
The intermingling of strangers in The Coast Starlight displays a Wilson level of finesse. Bunin approaches his narrative challenge – those imagined encounters – with a technical finesse honed during all his years moving back and forth between writing for the stage and writing for TV and movies. “Theater and film feed me in different ways. I’ve learned what approaches are more appropriate for the screen and which are better-suited for live performance. I couldn’t have written The Coast Starlight as a novel because it would have been too interior. And I couldn’t have done it as a film script because it’s driven almost entirely by language. Whenever I write a play, I want to be sure it can’t be anything else but a play.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com