Bus Stop is a subtly ambitious play. It’s an ensemble-driven production, but one where the players rarely all work together. And, they must convey a sense of tedium to the audience without the crowd actually feeling that themselves. With just one setting and no costume changes, the designs have to be perfect the first time out. Oh, and the whole thing has to be alternately funny and touching, too.
Fortunately, there are also cowboys, showgirls, naughty professors, burly sheriffs and both kinds of waitresses — young and naive, old and world-weary — to help shoulder the burden.
And, it’s how the Bristol Riverside Theatre chose to start its 2015–2016 season.
Bus Stop takes place over one night in the 1950s, when the play was first mounted. A small busload of travelers is stranded overnight in a Kansas diner due to a snowstorm. The ragtag crew includes a pretentious professor with some questionable intents, a nightclub singer, the brash young cowboy who’s maybe spent too much time on the ranch but is hellbent on marrying her, and his older, wiser counterpart. Also along for the ride, so to speak, are the bus driver, local sheriff and two waitresses.
The characters are all onstage for most of the play, which means the action jumps from coupling to coupling as they quickly set up camp on different parts of the stage. If this were a movie — and it was, starring Marilyn Monroe in the ’50s — the camera would just cut from group to group. Live, it’s achieved by one set of actors suddenly quieting down while another takes the spotlight.
It’s frustrating at times, especially in the first act: conversations often seem to stop mid-thought as the focus shifts to another group. There’s also a lot of exposition in the early dialogue that, on opening night, occasionally felt stilted or overdramatized until the actors seemed to relax and find their groove.
That said, Barbara McCulloh as the older waitress and diner owner displays great comedic timing, often shifting from sentimental to snarky just long enough to smartly land a joke. And, Mike Boland is instantly comfortable and worn-in as the sheriff who’s wise enough to always know what to do and experienced enough to take his time doing it.
As a whole, the cast should also be commended for not missing any beats in front of an unusually chatty audience at the Riverside.
But even as the action begins to flow more smoothly, the lack of interaction gets frustrating. Sure, we get to watch as existing relationships and power dynamics are revealed and new ones blossom as characters get to know each other. After a while, though, things begin to feel disparate and episodic, and you’re almost begging people to break down the boundaries between each other.
That feeling is exacerbated by director Susan Atkinson’s decision to roll right into Act 2 with no break, making the first leg of the performance much longer than the second. Theoretically, it makes sense: only a few minutes are to have passed between the first two acts, with a larger time break over intermission going into the third. In practice, it creates a bit of a lull after a while.
The upside to that, however, is that when that tension does break it’s big and satisfying. The action ramps up and then explodes toward the end of the long first act, where the boundaries finally cross and the entire set and cast are utilized all at once and to great effect. The energy remains high after that, even as the action resets after intermission. There’s more warmth, more development and more fun.
And, it stays like that through the end of the play, the final moments being especially touching and delicate, played and directed to great form.
Ultimately, there’s a lot to balance: comedy, tension and sentimentality; slow moments and fast action; ensemble work and smaller groupings. And it’s handled well, as are the sets and costumes. Scenic designer Nels Anderson’s diner is meticulously and authentically crafted right down to the metal signs on the wall and rack of vintage Life magazines in the corner.
Costume designer Linda Bee Stockton creates a satisfying palate of vibrant colors for a few characters and muted, worn-in ones for others. Her choices maintain a sense of realism for characters that could have easily become cartoonish.
If Bus Stop is any indication of what’s to come, the Bristol Riverside has a lot to offer this season.
Bus Stop is playing at the Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St. in Bristol, through Oct. 18. For information, visit www.brtstage.org.