On the Bum, or The Next Train Through
Big Game Theater
at the Preston Bradley Community Center
Neal Bell is one of those intensely irritating contemporary playwrights who become so obsessed with creating eccentric characters and making up evocative, poetic speeches that their stories go to smash. Bell’s Ragged Dick, for example, features the odd denizens of a New York City slum circa 1890–mouthy moppets, sharp-tongued whores, weary cops, ragged men–all of whom speak in an arch literary language cribbed from Victorian novels. A pet monkey even delivers a long soliloquy (no kidding) lifted from the Book of Job. But all the fine detail is not only useless but more than a little overwhelming given a story as anemic as the one in Ragged Dick: Jack the Ripper, or a copycat killer, is on the loose in New York.
Bell’s plays also usually overstay their welcome–by hours, not minutes. So On the Bum, or The Next Train Through feels like a revelation. It has all the standard Bell flaws–um, touches: eccentric characters, nonnaturalistic speech, supernatural happenings, stupid puns, a wandering story, pretentious literary allusions, scenes that take forever to get where they’re going. Yet the play works. At the end of its two and a half hours, we’re as riveted by the characters as we were in the beginning. And the very touches that I’ve thought ruined his early work actually advance Bell’s story here, contributing to the rich, resonant whole.
The fact that you can never tell where a Bell play is going, if it’s going anywhere at all, helps convey the desperation of Depression-era America, the play’s setting: no one knew where they were going or whether there was a there to get to. Bell’s meandering style also suits On the Bum’s picaresque story: a hapless actress, Eleanor Ames, who’s failed to make a living in New York must travel to a little town in the middle of nowhere, Bumfork, to work at a small WPA theater.
Bell’s love of nonnaturalistic, often quite literary dialogue can be annoying when he’s imitating overblown 19th-century writing. But in On the Bum this technique gives him greater expressive range. The New York theater people, for example, speak and behave like the hard-bitten hoofers in such movie musicals as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, a technique that’s all the more clever since the trigger for the plot–Eleanor’s show must close when the producer runs out of money–turns up time and again in such backstage musicals. And in the midwestern town of Bumfork the folks look and sound like they’ve stepped out of the pages of Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology: we have the town atheist, the drunk, the puffed-up local poet, the brainy but cracked introvert, the swaggering patriarch who will crush anyone who tries to reveal his family’s terrible secret.
David Cromer’s direction is simple but intelligent. No matter what eccentricity Bell throws at him, he rolls with it. When the playwright, in a fit of Bellishness, suddenly introduces a chorus of ghosts two-thirds of the way through, Cromer gives us ghosts and leaves the explaining to Bell. (He does explain.) Likewise, whenever the tone or style shifts–as it does at least three times, moving in a matter of minutes from witty urban comedy to gritty documentary of life on the rails to mildly tart small-town middle-American pastoral–Cromer follows, with the result that these shifts feel like stages in Eleanor’s journey and not the hotdogging of a talented but tiresome playwright.
Big Game Theater has been known since its first productions for the high quality of its non-Equity actors, and this ensemble is no exception. They’re equally comfortable with the punchy, quip-filled movie- musical talk of the first scenes, the hobospeak of the middle section, and the midwestern drawl of the last part of the story, breathing life into Bell’s words. Words that, until I saw On the Bum, I would have sworn always fell stillborn from Bell’s word processor.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Max Shapiro.