Ride the rails at New Jersey Rep…

Michael Irvin Pollard, left, Philip Lynch and Maria Silverman play Night Train's unlikely compartment mates.

Hitchcock it ain’t, but John Biguenet’s play running at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, New Jersey through May 29 centers on a meeting of strangers on a train. It is an interesting play, which isn’t a cop-out. Many plays are not.

In Night Train, buttoned-up banker Alex (Michael Irvin Pollard) is comfortably settled in a first-class compartment on an all-nighter train ride from and to unspecified destinations. Max (Philip Lynch), a disheveled, scruffy-bearded refugee from second-class, plops himself down, uninvited, in Alex’s upscale digs. The two are as different in temperament as in dress. Max moves and chatters at 78 rpm; Alex functions at 33 1/3 LP.

Continuing that metaphor, Max plays Alex like a virtuoso. Prying into every corner of Alex’s life (with too little resistance even for a fiction that depends on just that), he stirs up doubts in Alex about his values, his job and, most significant as it turns out, his wife.

Enter Marta, a well-disguised (in type) femme fatale with a Slavic accent, which Maria Silverman affects very well, and a veneer of rustic innocence, which soon dissolves. Based on that sketchy outline, you could rightly imagine any number of scenarios; playwright Biguenet’s is as good as any and as predictable as most, which doesn’t make it bad, just, well, predictable.

Night Train has a split personality. At intermission, I commented that even though I was among the few who were laughing, I thought the play, which had begun in serious mode, had evolved into a comedy, with wife jokes and non-sequitors, many of which hit the mark. Both the playwright and the director agreed with that assessment.

But act two abandoned quasi-sitcom funny in favor of quasi-romantic sad, with a dose of quasi-preachy social commentary, leading up to an ending that, due to an awkward and waayy over-obvious symbolic device, takes waayy too long.

Everything mentioned is fixable, and a pretty good comedy-drama is lurking in Night Train. Like so many new plays, which inform the mission of NJ Rep, this one would benefit from a judiciously applied scalpel. The three actors are fine (Pollard is more subtle than I’ve seen him), and SuzAnne Barabas’s direction keeps things humming among three characters in a confined space.

Jessica Parks’s train compartment set is a beaut, as are Jill Nagle’s lighting and Merek Royce Press’ sound. Their collaboration evokes a real choo-choo. (An occasional sway by the actors contributes as well.)

There is, intentionally or not, a variation on the “Chekhov’s gun” principle, which states that if a gun is displayed in the first act, it must go off in the second. The item here isn’t a gun, and it’s also not the second-act returnee. What is, or are, however, are key to that less-than-snappy ending.

NJ Rep, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ. Thurs&Fri at 8pm; Sat 3 and 8; Sun at 2. Tickets ($40):  732-229-3166 or www.njrep.org

(Why NJ Rep isn’t using Buddy Morrow’s iconic 1952 jazz classic “Night Train” for intro, intermission and chase music, is a real mystery. Beyond just the title, the composition fits the playwright’s intention to a tee.)


Professional, Regional