Some good performances, but ‘The Bus’ never quite makes it out of the station

Will Roland and Bryan Fitzgerald. (Carol Rosegg.)
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In the small town where The Bus, a new play by James Lantz playing at 59E59 Theaters, is set, anyone who isn’t a member of the local megachurch is an outcast. This town hasn't even made it to tackling issues as serious as the dancing and rock music that riled up fictional Bomont of Footloose fame.

The central conflict here is that the owner of a local gas station has the nerve to ask the town's preacher to move a broken-down bus with a sign on its side pointing the way to the church off his property.

But the bus also serves as the setting for a more inflammatory secret subversion of the town's morals; the giant advertisement for the church also serves as the rendezvous point for a pair of gay teenage boys, Jordan and Ian, who find in the abandoned bus a place away from prying eyes where they can do all the things the church says they shouldn’t.

Jordan is the better adjusted of the two, while Ian is caught in a horrible bindnot just as a gay teenager in a homophobic town, but as the son of two parents on opposing sides in the town’s larger battles.

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His father owns the gas station that’s fighting the church, and his mother is one of the church’s most devout members. The bus is simultaneously his precarious safe haven, and the source of all the tensions in his very stubborn family.

Despite its good intentions and the occasional unforeseen turn, Lantz’s play is neither strikingly original in its themes nor particularly subtle in its plotting. Somehow its script, which avoids any overt cultural references to time or place, manages to feel dated. And despite some clever directing by John Simpkins, who makes quite a lot out of a tiny theater’s cramped space, the play feels slack even at 85 minutes.

It may play better in Topeka, Kan., where the play makes its next stop and which is home to the notoriously anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church.

Still, there’s something wonderful to see here in the cast, some of whom transform roles that in lesser hands might seem two-dimensional into something bigger.

Julia Lawler is compelling in a variety of small parts, including a young girl who serves as the play’s narrator; she brings an earnestness and warmth to her lines, and is the only person who makes us think there might be someone genuinely decent in this town.

And Bryan Fitzgerald seems absolutely real, entirely believable as gay teenager Jordan. He is bold and frisky during the romantic scenes, shy and self-doubting in the scenes at school, and terrified and self-effacing in the scenes where he faces the town’s judgmental adults. It's a performance that gives the character a compelling trajectory even as the bus, and The Bus, stays stuck in one place.

The Bus is playing at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th St. Buy tickets online or call 212-279-4200.