The weather, as we in Buffalo know more than most, can often change even the best-laid plans. No matter how much you may want to go somewhere, sometimes nasty weather simply makes you stay put.
A snowstorm produces just such suspension of travel plans in the debut production from Navigation Theatre Company, the enjoyable “The Kindness of Strangers.” With all trains having canceled their stops at this small town somewhere in downstate New York, a group of temporarily delayed travelers in Mulligan’s Bar find themselves caught up in a gripping and emotional conversation.
Written by local playwright Mark Humphrey, “The Kindness of Strangers” unfolds with the natural rhythms of strangers moving from the initial awkwardness and tension of a chance meeting, to the eventual calm of a focused, general conversation. Humphrey’s characters come to life, both through their witty banter and their occasional moments of extended storytelling.
Through his direction and his excellent set design, Matthew LaChiusa allows Humphrey’s conversation-oriented script to thrive. LaChiusa has created a compelling vision of a comfortable dive bar, complete with a menu, dartboard, bathroom, television and eye-catching advertisements.
With many seats to choose from in a spacious bar, LaChiusa’s set allows for a surprising variety of interactions in the single-set play. Some very clever use of lighting allows the bar area to become a separate scene for a key conversation between the bartender and one patron, even as the others go on playing the card game that keeps the characters chatting happily.
At the heart of the play lies a collision of big-city celebrity with small-town anonymity. Providing the play’s standout performance, Timothy Coseglia plays an intense, arrogant actor named Jackie Mantle. Having found his career damaged by being tried for the hit-and-run murder of his ex-wife (even though he was acquitted), the edgy and ever sarcastic Jackie is there looking for work.
Rubbing everyone the wrong way from the moment he steps into the bar, Coseglia’s Jackie soon becomes the center of attention, as many express skepticism that he did not kill his ex-wife. Often bickering with his personal assistant, Linda (played adeptly by Suzie Hibbard), Jackie steadfastly maintains his innocence, with his intense sincerity marked by his constant correction of others that it was his “ex-wife” (not his wife) who was killed. Jackie’s consistent insistence that acting is a difficult profession adds a very humanizing touch.
Hibbard provides a crucially effective performance as Linda. While she at first largely ignores the others, preferring to read Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” rather than join them in their game of cards, she occasionally joins the conversation to rail against Jackie’s ex-wife, who was a rude and demanding person who treated her like a servant.
The other patrons and bartender are all integral parts of the conversation. Monish Bhattacharyya is excellent as Peter, a sleazy cynic whose initial attempts to flirt with Linda prove more nefarious when we learn that he is a pornographic filmmaker always on the lookout for acting talent. Victor Morales’s earnest role as Frank provides emotional resonance, as he explains his desperate and transient life as a cancer patient. Meanwhile, John F. Kennedy’s wise bartender Billy provides canny psychological insights.
While I won’t reveal anything about the play’s resolution, I can say that a final line voiced by Linda nicely encapsulates the play’s power. Saying that she likes the snow and wishes it would cover over everything, Linda indirectly points out the surprisingly engrossing, if melancholy, outcome of life’s storms.
“The Kindness of Strangers”
3 stars (out of 4)
Through Nov. 16 at the Compass Performing Arts Center (445 Elmwood Ave.), Performances are at 8 p.m. Nov. 8, Nov. 13, 14 and 15 and 5 p.m. Nov. 9 and Nov. 16. Tickets are $20 general, $15 discounted for student, military and industry. Call 697-0837 or get tickets here.