As we all know, there was no sex in America until the mid-'60s. Apparently William Inge had an inkling that there was such a thing as sex as early as the '50s, when he injected hints of it in "Come Back, Little Sheba" and "Picnic."
"Bus Stop," which has been given a likeable if unpersuasive revival at Circle in the Square, may be the most naive of Inge's plays. It almost has a fairy-tale quality to it.
The play catapulted Kim Stanley to stardom in 1955, and later provided a movie vehicle for Marilyn Monroe's ample talents in the role of Cherie, a young lounge singer.
This time, Mary-Louise Parker who drew attention in the stage version of "Prelude to a Kiss" a few seasons ago is gambling the role will become her star vehicle.
Bo, a young cowboy (Billy Crudup) who has spent all of his 21 years roping steers, has abducted Cherie, and wants to carry her back to his Montana ranch. They have spent a night together, but she is not sure she wants to spend the rest of her life with him.
If this were a fairy tale, Bo and Cherie might find themselves in a magic forest, where this innocent prince might perform feats of derring-do to win her heart. Here, their bus is stranded in a snowstorm and they have to spend the night in a small-town diner, which is, I guess by virtue of nostalgia a kind of enchanted forest.
What is interesting about the 40-year-old play is that it anticipates our era's ideas about masculinity. What makes Bo attractive to his conquest is his unexpected vulnerability. When the local sheriff whups him in a fight, Bo loses his cockiness. Beaten and contrite, he suddenly becomes appealing to Cherie.
There is a subplot about another passenger, a professor who recites classic poetry and has a mock courtship with a waitress. We later learn he has a record for making advances to underage girls.
For modern audiences, all of this is pretty tame. What fleshed the plot out for 1955 audiences were the fears and longings they brought into the theater. Without this excess baggage, the play seems empty.
As of now, Parker and Crudup are working too hard. Their characters are constantly striking poses. Perhaps, when they relax, the courtship will have a simple charm that will make the whole play more believable.
The best performances in Josephine R. Abady's production are the ones on the fringe - Kelly Bishop as the hard-boiled owner of the diner, Michael Cullen as the shrewd, tough sheriff, Scott Sowers as the bus driver and Larry Pine as Bo's singing sidekick.
Ron Perlman has both gravity and forlornness as the professor, and Patricia Dunnock has an affecting sweetness as the younger waitress.
Finally, the production is not helped by being staged in the round. In a conventional production, the artifice of having all the characters on stage most of the time, trapped as they are in Grace's Diner, could be relieved by having them drift into dimly lit areas. Here, they're always in sight.
There is an inescapable maxim for all classic revivals in the theater. If a play is really worth doing, it is worth doing badly; but if a play is hardly worth doing at all, it has to be done superbly.
I doubt whether there was really much point in exhuming William Inge's 1955 Broadway success "Bus Stop" for contemporary scrutiny. It's a vehicle on its last legs, an old-time streetcar named commerce that has well and truly stopped.
But that said, it can cheerfully be admitted that last night's autopsy by Circle in the Square was most expertly carried out. Whatever life there was left in the old corpse was galvanized into action. The staging and the performances - particularly those of Mary-Louise Parker, Ron Perlman, Billy Crudup, Larry Pine and Kelly Bishop - were as good as gold, or, at least given the nature of the work, as good as gold-plate.
It used to be the fashion to compare Inge with Tennessee Williams, but they have little in common, other than a certain interest in stud-sexuality, and a concern (in the case of Williams a concern sparked with genius) to write star-parts for actors.
"Bus Stop," a work not unlike William Saroyan's superior if untidier "The Time of Your Life," is set over a few hours in a diner in Kansas (yep, we I stay in Kansas, Toto) where a bus is marooned in a blizzard.
This contrivance permits the display of histrionic skills and what can probably still pass on Broadway for rich human nature, but which in reality has as much to do with human nature as a greeting card has with poetry.
Inge's heroine is a Kansas City nightclub "chantooze" called Cherie (Parker), and she has been hijacked on a bus to Montana, by a high-whooping, near-virgin cowboy, Bo (Crudup) who insists on carting her off to his ranch and matrimony.
Also on the bus is his guitar-strumming, tobacco-chewing pardner and guardian, Virgil (Pine), and Dr. Lyman (Perlman), a disgraced thrice-married professor of English literature who could not love booze half so much if he loved not prepubescent girls more.
The cast of good-natured cliches is completed with Grace (Bishop) the diner's who has a hasty, therapeutic fling with the bus driver Carl (Michael Cullen), the larger-than-life sheriff (Scott Sowers) and the young waitress Elma (Patricia Dunnock) on the cusp of experience.
Josephine R. Abady's staging, much helped by the nicely time-warped setting by Hugh Landwehr (which evoke's Hopper's totemic painting "Nightwings") and costumes by Linda Fisher, is on target, both in period style and present immediacy.
And she has coaxed lovely (not over-lovable) performances from her cast - Perlman, wonderful rusty, besozzled yet still wrapped in the threadbare decency; Pine, the one guy left out in the cold, commonsensical and gnarled; Bishop as hard-bitten as chipped nail varnish; Sowers all boys-town morality; Cullen seedily sniffing sex on the side; and Dunnock, tremulously awakening, are all properly Reader's Digest memorable.
In the key roles, Crudup makes the outrageous and charmless cowboy quite charmingly callow and warm, while Parker - faced with the daunting, death-less image of Marilyn Monroe in the movie version - is absolutely wonderful, tenderly recreating every bruised fiber of the role into a freshly bewildered and ditsy interpretation of her own.
So, I didn't care overmuch for what was being done, but I am absolutely unstinting in my admiration for the way they did it.
During the height of his career in the 1950's, the playwright William Inge was sometimes placed in the pantheon of post-World War II giants with Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. They were of the same generation, but Inge was not of the stature of the other two, being neither a great poet of the theater nor a grandly dramatic moralist. He was a deceptively prosy sort of writer.
Yet by his attention to the language and behavior of inarticulate, rural Americans, he created a small body of highly theatrical stage literature, works that are rivaled only by those of the far more rigorous Horton Foote. Inge dramatized the melancholy, the humor and the unconscious gallantry of commonplace characters. He saw them mostly in economically depressed but sexually charged circumstances, which proved extremely popular with both the critics and the public. In seven years he turned out the four plays that are his legacy: "Come Back, Little Sheba," 1950; "Picnic," 1953; "Bus Stop," 1955, and "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," 1957.
He continued to work until his suicide in 1973, though nothing he wrote had the impact of those plays. His biggest hit: "Bus Stop," first seen as the memorable Broadway production, directed by Harold Clurman and starring Kim Stanley, then as the considerably rewritten film vehicle for Marilyn Monroe, directed by Josh Logan. It was also the basis of a 1960's television drama series for which Inge himself was a script consultant.
"Bus Stop" is still a good play, but you wouldn't know it from the superficial staging it's being given at the Circle in the Square, where it opened last night. This production and the 1994 Roundabout Theater production of "Picnic" would seem to demonstrate that Inge's work is as resistant to revival today as "Gammer Gurtons Nedle," which is nonsense.
"Bus Stop" is especially rich with possibilities. It can be very funny. It discovers the fresh and the particular within characters who can too easily be seen as archetypes of humdrum Americana. It's also constructed with an innate sense of a form that works well in popular theater:
A blizzard strands four bus passengers overnight in a small-town diner 40 miles west of Kansas City. They are Cherie, a pretty, not too bright, Ozarks-born B-girl and self-styled chanteuse; Bo, a strapping, lovesick young rodeo rider who's taking Cherie home to Montana to marry her, oblivious to the fact that she doesn't want to marry him; Virgil, Bo's brains and older pal, and Dr. Lyman, an alcoholic, Harvard-educated Ph.D. with a fondness for girls under the age of consent.
In the course of this fraught, turbulent night, Bo courts Cherie like a bull going after a blond mouse, Dr. Lyman romances Elma, the literature-loving, teen-age waitress, while Grace, the owner of the diner, finds time to accommodate Carl, the macho bus driver for whom she has long had an itch. Will, the local sheriff, and Virgil are the unsurprised spectators to the mayhem.
"Bus Stop" can be accurately described as a fugue whose themes are the various aspects of love. That, however, is to freight the text with meanings that should creep out in their own good time. It's primarily a comedy whose genuine sweetness never long disguises the bleak nature of the lives it's recording. Inge was too clear-eyed to be an outright sentimentalist. He longed for happy endings, but the ones he provided (and which soothed audiences) always left the door open for disaster.
He definitely was not a regional humorist. Yet this is the dominant impression you get from Josephine R. Abady's new production of "Bus Stop." In part this is because the principal performances appear to have been shaped in desperation. Though the actors are thorough professionals, they give the impression of being less concerned with the sense of their roles than with accommodating their uncomfortable rural accents while speaking their lines.
There's no doubt that Mary-Louise Parker and Billy Crudup, who play Cherie and Bo, are excellent actors. You should remember her in "Prelude to a Kiss" and him as one of the bright spots in "Arcadia." Yet both are allowed to sound like relatives visiting "The Beverly Hillbillies." It's not a question of the accuracy of their accents, but of the balance, of the way the accents take precedence in the performances, in this way clouding the characterizations instead of revealing them.
Wearing skintight toreador pants and a scrawny jacket of fake leopard, Ms. Parker looks exquisite and fragile as the besieged Cherie, but as soon as she opens her mouth we seem to be in a vaudeville sketch. In addition to his accent, the slightly built Mr. Crudup has another problem. He's physically miscast as the swaggering, rough-and-tumble bronco rider who has no idea of his own dangerous heft. As a result, Cherie and Bo don't seem to be involved in any deliriously crazy courtship, but in a contest to see who can outact the other. Everything seems too forced.
Patricia Dunnock is charming as the Shakespeare-quoting teen-age waitress, who's quite pleased when she learns that the elderly Dr. Lyman did have lascivious designs on her. Ron Perlman plays this fellow with fey elegance, and with less of any recognizable accent than with an insinuating W. C. Fields kind of slur. Kelly Bishop as the diner owner, the role originated by Elaine Stritch; Larry Pine as Virgil; Scott Sowers as Will, and Michael Cullen as Carl are all as good as they can be in a production that appears to condescend to the play.
Ms. Abady uses the stage space well. There's seldom the awareness that the actors are arbitrarily turning this way and that to allow the members of the audience, who are seated around the four sides of the stage, equal access to front views and profiles.
It should be noted that the performance seems to improve somewhat as it goes on. But it's anybody's guess whether this is because the performance really does get better, because one becomes adjusted to its failings, or because Inge's voice will not be stilled, no matter what the obstacles. Possibly it's a bit of all three.
Does "Bus Stop" merit a cast this good, a production this solid? A list of plays more deserving of resurrection than William Inge's high school auditorium chestnut could be compiled at a moment's notice -- the years haven't exactly been kind to the playwright or his borderline pat, just-shy-of-musty works. Little matter -- as an excuse to see an exciting young actor like Billy Crudup strut his way up the Broadway ladder, "Bus Stop" will do just fine.
Even so, Josephine R. Abady, making her directorial bow since becoming Circle in the Square's co-artistic director more than a year ago, has played her hello a bit too safely: Although her clean, straightforward approach outshines memories of the vastly overrated film version starring Marilyn Monroe, this "Bus Stop"-- any "Bus Stop"? -- is hardly the stuff of which grand entrances are made.
The familiar story -- less plot than schematic design -- has eight characters holed up overnight in a diner outside Kansas City during a snowstorm. With each character having a distinct, even stock, take on love and romantic possibility, the throw-'em-in-a-room mechanics allow the playwright ample opportunity to expound on the chasm between youthful optimism and middle-aged resignation.
And youthful optimism is given vivid form in Bo Decker (Crudup), the randy, boisterous, just-off-the-farm cowboy too young to know that life may not always go his way. He's been chasing Cherie (Mary-Louise Parker), another bus passenger , since their one night of passion, oblivious to the fact that the talentless, self-described "chanteuse" has no intention of following him to his distant Wyoming ranch. Used-and-abused Cherie, who questions her ability to love, doesn't quite know what to make of the headstrong, innocent Bo.
Other perspectives on loneliness and connection are provided by Grace (Kelly Bishop), the diner's owner; Elma (Patricia Dunnock), a naive young waitress; Dr. Gerald Lyman (Ron Perlman), a pompous, bitter ex-professor with a weakness for young girls and stiff drink; Virgil (Larry Pine), the ranch hand who raised Bo but soon finds himself "left out in the cold"; the local sheriff (Scott Sowers), and bus driver Carl (Michael Cullen).
The subplots -- the professor's attempted seduction of the waitress, the bus driver's flirtation with the diner owner -- essentially serve as backdrop to Bo's crude yet poignant wooing of Cherie, and any production of "Bus Stop" rises or falls on the two central performances. This production rises, even if Parker's charmingly introspective acting style can't always match the flamboyance of Crudup's bravado. The production soars to life when he swaggers onstage.
Perlman gives a sturdy turn as the self-loathing professor, although the performance lacks any surprises that might have moved it from the confines of Inge's stock characterization. Bishop does better by offering only the barest hint of loneliness beneath her character's tough exterior, an approach also wisely taken by Pine. The rest of the ensemble lends fine support.
As for other confines, Circle in the Square's theater-in-the-round configuration seems a bit less distracting this time out, thanks in part to Hugh Landwehr's simple but evocative diner set and a cast sizable enough to play to all sides of the surrounding audience. Abady moves her actors effectively, if not showily, an apt enough description of the production itself.