On an airplane, many of us have found ourselves seated next to a fellow passenger who talks incessantly to us during the entire flight. At most, the situation is no more than a major annoyance; the plane is usually full of other people, and a flight attendant is just a button signal away should things get out of hand. Not so for Alex Hampton, the dapper banker at the heart of John Biguenet's engrossing comic-thriller, Night Train, now receiving its world première at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
Alone, late at night, on an old-fashioned European-style train, Alex Hampton finds his first class compartment invaded by Max, a disheveled, bearded, long-haired traveler who has left his crowded, noisy second class compartment for Alex's, there to ensconce himself for the rest of the journey. No use calling the conductors; Max informs him that they are probably asleep and, besides, they could be behind the gassing and robberies that often occur on night trains. Speaking nonstop, Max identifies himself as a "native of these parts," a member of the lower classes who doesn't have it as "cushy" as Alex, with his London-tailored suit and Argentine leather shoes. He stokes Alex's fears of robbery, suggests that Alex's young second wife is cheating on him with the gardener, and tells wildly contradictory stories about himself, his aspirations and his occupation.
With Alex's confidence in himself and his way of life quickly ebbing, Max brings his sultry, sexy "niece" Marta into the compartment to keep Alex company: "No point in living in a fool's paradise," he tells Alex. Multiple twists and turns ensue as the story speeds along before coming to an abrupt, and surprising, stop where all of our expectations—and Alex's—are stood on end.
Like the train that chugs along at a steady pace, SuzAnne Barabas has directed this surreal play so that the suspense never flags. Set designer Jessica Parks's spacious—yet claustrophobic, given the malevolent goings on—train compartment; Merek Royce Press's effective sound design; and Jill Nagle's atmospheric lighting add to the verisimilitude.
Barabas has assembled a first-rate cast to portray the trio involved in this intricate, bizarre dance. Michael Irvin Pollard's Alex Hampton morphs from a smug, rather snooty bourgeois banker into a cringing victim right before our eyes. He's ripe for the web of uncertainty and doubt deftly woven by Max. Philip Lynch's portrayal of his chameleon-like nemesis is nothing short of masterful. I got a headache just listening to him jabber on, jumping from one pronouncement to another, but his transformation from harmless chatterbox to malicious occurs in increments, thus taking us by surprise. Indeed, listen carefully to his yammering, for playwright Biguenet has sown his script with several clues as to what will eventually happen. And as Marta, Maria Silverman is surprising, as well. We feel sympathy for her at first but soon realize that she's not a woman to be tangled with.
This was my first visit to New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Billing itself as "a Boutique Theater for Passionate Theater Goers," the tiny auditorium (if it can be called an auditorium, with fewer than 100 seats!) enhanced the feeling that we were stuck on the Night Train with Alex Hampton, with no way out. It's a chilling thought.
Night Train will be performed at 179 Broadway in Long Branch through May 29. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 3 PM and Sundays at 2 PM. There is no matinee on April 30. For tickets, call 732.229.3166 or visit www.njrep.org for online ticketing.