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.