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At this ‘Bus Stop’ you’re still in Kansas

The question in a revival of William Inge’s “Bus Stop” is whether it will focus on the play’s comic side or the existential isolation at its center. Inge being Inge, you know you’ll see small-town loners facing strained relationships with sex, lies and (there being no videotape in the early 1950s) that barren Midwest landscape — both outer and inner.

The production of the old warhorse that Next Stage Rep opened Friday night at The Collier Center at the Craterian Center for the Performing Arts, directed by Doug Warner, comes down firmly on the side of comedy. There are laughs in every scene.

Cherie (Stephanie Jones) is a bad girl/hillbilly singer with a heart of gold. Her suitor (or abductor), the virginal cowboy Bo (Jeremy Bryon Kotler), is stubborn as a Missouri mule and dumber than an acre of rocks. And that’s just the central couple.

“Bus Stop” depends on the well-worn device of throwing a disparate bunch of strangers together in a place from which they can’t escape, then turning up the heat and watching them squirm. This time it’s the diner run by salt-of-the-earth Grace (Presila Quinby) on the road between Kansas City and Topeka, where a blizzard has halted traffic, and the passengers on the bus driven by Carl (Joe Charter) are forced to take shelter from the storm.

The ensuing dramas revolve around no less than three sexual narratives. Clueless (but good-hearted) troglodyte Bo wants Cherie, whom he’s basically kidnapped, and she isn’t having any. Grace doesn’t mind a tumble upstairs in her apartment with Carl. And Dr. Lyman, a boorish old alcoholic pedant, is hitting on naive Elma (Marlena Gray), a young waitress who works for Grace and looks to Topeka as a glittering center of culture.

The play was a Broadway hit in 1955 — Inge was then mentioned in the same breath with Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams — and then it pretty much went away for years. Inge was seen as a playwright with serious things to say about the human condition in plays such as “Picnic,” while “Bus Stop” was criticized for being a superficial romantic comedy.

Nonsense. “Bus Stop,” far from being too superficial, is usually not frothy enough. If it’s over-the-top nyuk-nyuk, we’re more willing to accept the weirdly Neanderthal Bo-Cherie plot in the nudge-in-the-ribs spirit of a Kate and Petruchio. If it’s played straight, it’s cringe-worthy, in part since its central relationship is essentially a kidnapping.

I saw a production a few years ago that tried to make serious drama out of the play. It was hard to watch. Warner’s direction is broad to the max, and virtually everything is played for laughs except ultimately the character of the disgusting Dr. Lyman (who earlier gets his share of laughs, too).

Lyman, a self-portrait of Inge, changed for 1950s mores into a heterosexual, is a troublesome note amidst the comedy. He’s a drunken old sexual predator who targets young girls. Inge based many of his characters on real people, but the paroxysm of self-loathing that is Lyman adds a sour note to the play.

You can debate how much Inge had to say. But he said it with enough pizzazz to keep audiences entertained, even if these characters have at most two dimensions. Cherie is the richest, and Jones renders her with an almost Monroe-esque mix of strength and vulnerability. Jack Seybold as a plainspoken sheriff and Carl Jones as Bo’s down-on-his luck pal Virgil shine in character roles.

“Bus Stop” performances will take place at the Collier at 7:30 tonight and again Sept. 18 19.

— Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.

Jeremy Bryon Kotler and Stephanie Jones star in 'Bus Stop'. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell photo