Is it a bus bound for glory or damnation? Yes.
In "The Bus," playwright James Lantz combines good intentions, plot contrivances, and a schematic route for a story that never quite gets to a satisfying destination. Part of New Conservatory Theatre Center's gay-themed Pride season, "The Bus" is also slated to travel to three smaller inland communities as part of an outreach that at this point in time seems, at least to this city slicker, too rudimentary even for Fresno, Modesto, and beyond.
Actually, Lantz has in his hands the ingredients for a wrenching drama in which conflicting notions of righteousness can become explosive. But the literal explosives become part of a clumsy shell game of swapped-out combustibles that undermines responsibility for the tragic ramifications.
The titular vehicle has sat motionless for years on the corner of a small-town gas station, part of an understanding between the station's former owner and a fundamentalist church that uses it as a road marker to its facilities. It has also become the site of clandestine rendezvouses between two teenage boys with differing notions of the need for secrecy.
Ian, the more anxious of the two, has understandable reasons for his edginess. His father now owns the gas station, and wants to be rid of the old bus, while his mother is a fervent member of the church that wants to maintain its landmark. They are divorced, and the bus has become a symbol of their bitter estrangement.
The grown-up battles over the bus and the adolescent affections within it are not well integrated, and the amount of time allocated in the play's 80 minutes to the dramatically wan bus fuss becomes excessive. The late revelation that the father's motives are more complex feels like an arbitrary plot twist.
Director Sara Staley's production is simple and smooth, with Bruce Alvin, Eileen Fisher, and Dan Tracer bringing passions to their roles as father, mother, and son, and with Eric Esquivel offering an easygoing charm as Ian's secret boyfriend, and Harry Breaux providing an aw-shucks balance as an old mechanic at the gas station.
The playwright uses a kind of Our Town narrator, billed as "Little Girl," to offer folksy observations and wind her way through the story as various characters. Giovanna Arieta is an affable presence in the role, but these scenes feel mismatched with the generally angry tone of the play. Explorations of forbidden affection are what should be driving The Bus, but they end up taking the back seat.
"The Bus" will run at New Conservatory Theatre Center through April 28. Tickets are $25-$45. Call 861-8972 or go to www.nctcsf.org.