It's fitting that Chinese playwright, novelist and essayist Gao Xingjian's second major play The Bus Stop (1983) is having its long overdue New York premiere in the midst of the city's worst transit crisis since, well, the 80s. Though it draws on similar existential angst as Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett (whose work Xingjian has often translated), this story of eight strangers waiting endlessly at a roadside bus stop also emerges from specific historical and socio-economic conditions.
The Bus Stop sets the casual brutality and alienation of modern life alongside a sustained critique of communist bureaucracy and the blind spots where predatory capitalism runs rampant — subjects that got the play some especially negative reviews from members of the Communist Party when it was first produced in Beijing. Presented in New York today, at the moment of America's closest brush with socialism since the Great Depression, Xingjian's absurdist satire mobilizes anxieties about government inefficiency and personal sacrifice that seem ripped from New York Post headlines.
Still, Theatre Han's production avoids engaging these contemporary resonances too explicitly. With simple and effective costume design — everyone in black and white with one or two red details — a fun, spinning, in-the-round set design, and outstanding sound and lighting, The Bus Stop makes terrific use of the Sanford Meisner Theatre's moody, miniscule space. Located out of time and place, it recalls the afterlife antechamber of Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit.
In this tight, intimate environment, even the weaker performers can't detract from the ensemble's increasingly chaotic momentum. As months and then years pass and buses drive by without stopping, three actors' evolutions are especially moving. Director Ma (Jamie Grayson), The Bus Stop's archetypal slimy merchant-class salesman, slowly peels away clothes and layers of contempt to reveal an empty life dressed elegantly with others' hard-earned money. Adam Bedri's portrayal of Hothead, cast here as an Italian-American teen full of misdirected energy who really wants to get to the city for some yogurt, wound up carrying the show even though his performance initially seemed one-dimensional. Glasses (Gabe Belyeu), meanwhile, after being the early victim of Hothead's anger, quietly develops into a leading presence, and it's almost a shame his love interest in Girl (Alice Oh) isn't developed further.
The Bus Stop is anything but romantic, though, and its closing optimism for group action brings everyone — especially the audience — under its wing. So while Oh's turn as Girl never quite reaches an engaging energy level — the play's considerable feminist potential remains largely unrealized — her work as this play's producer and artistic director of Theatre Han does not disappoint. Inflammatory at the time of its writing and enlightening in the epoch of its New York premiere, you'll be missing out on much more than a fun ride if you don't catch The Bus Stop.
Theatre Han's production of The Bus Stop at the Sanford Meisner Theatre (164 Eleventh Ave, between 22nd and 23rd Sts) continues through April 19.