Noah Bean and Nicole Rosenburg
in Bus Stop
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Noah Bean and Nicole Rosenburg
in Bus Stop
(© T. Charles Erickson)
There's a world of difference between a "chantoose" washed up by the time she's 30 and an aspiring starlet, only slightly used, who's a mere 19 -- a fact that's proved by Nicole Rodenburg's superb performance as Cherie in director Nicholas Martin's riveting revival of William Inge's drama Bus Stop at the Huntington Theatre.

In the play (first seen on Broadway in 1956 and filmed the same year with Marilyn Monroe as Cherie), Inge took an already tired trope -- a group of strangers are unexpectedly thrust into intimacy -- and created a cross-section of Middle America that transcends the genre to emerge ageless and universal. All the play needed was a bit of directorial dusting off to make it shine anew, which is what Martin provides in this boisterous, surprisingly laugh-packed production.

Rodenburg digs beneath her character's dime-store notion of glamour to find the still-dewy teen within. Her rendition of "That Old Black Magic," delivered with calculatedly sexy gestures in a tinny voice, is just the sort of thing a young hick with dreams of stardom might cook up in her bedroom mirror. Cherie is oblivious to the fact that it's her body, poured into a gold gown, and not her talent that has earned her what little acclaim she has managed to garner in a dive bar by the railroad tracks in Kansas City. It's little wonder that her self-appointed fiancé (or more strictly speaking, abductor), the 21-year-old Montana rancher Bo (Noah Bean), can hardly contain himself around her.

Bean is a revelation as well: he's cocky and swaggering, but not in a threateningly macho mode, just pumped up with the confidence that comes with his achingly ignorant youth. Stephen Lee Anderson provides much-needed ballast -- and a still spot onstage that draws and rewards attention -- as Virgil Blessing, Bo's wind-blasted buddy-slash-guardian.

As diner proprietress Grace -- who gets a kick out of watching a good fight and engaging in the occasional tryst with a passing bus driver (Will LeBow) -- Karen MacDonald gives such juicy line readings that you half envy this game old broad her lot in life. The mountainous Adam LeFevre as local sheriff Will Masters also provides able support.

The one misfire in the production is Henry Stram as Dr. Gerald Lyman, a disgraced college professor brought down by liquor and a fondness for underage female flesh. While it's one o'clock in the morning and he's been on the lam all day (chased out of a schoolyard), Stram's Lyman looks as if he'd just come from having a shave and tonsure trim.

Moreover, Stram keeps Lyman's chronic drunkenness too neatly in check. Maybe the idea is to render him seemingly harmless -- in order to keep him from scaring off 14-year-old waitress Elma Duckworth (Ronette Levenson, looking and sounding like a raspy young Lili Taylor) -- but Lyman has been so effectively neutered that it's hard to see how he would enchant her.