Two black ex-cons, a white girlfriend of one of them and a quiet white guy trying to mind his own business share a train car from Camden to Trenton when a transformer blows, stranding the train in a tunnel. It’s hot. It’s dark. Tension builds. One man is particularly volatile. Things could get out of hand. What would Jesus do?
The intense and engrossing new play “Express Tracks,” from South Camden Theatre Company, considers that very question — and then proceeds to answer it. In the process, we are involved in what becomes a pointed discussion of theology, race, class and free will.
It’s a heady ride, and not altogether theatrically smooth. But this world premiere by Joseph M. Paprzycki, the company’s producing artistic director, is full of good ideas, many of them realized in genuine dialogue. Paprzycki sets up a tough playwriting task: Once his train loses power inside a tunnel, with the doors unable to open, he himself is powerless to move the play out of its tight quarters. So he turns “Express Tracks” inward, and his characters begin to show themselves in ways that we were unable to see before.
Despite its tension, Paprzycki gives the characters enough spunk – also true to life – to make “Express Tracks” entertaining. They include an angry ex-con bully named J’Ameer (a wonderfully menacing Eric Carter), his nervous and washed-out girlfriend (Michelle Pauls, the managing artistic director of B. Someday Productions in Frankford, and excellent here), and a former convict who’s found God (the compelling Damien J. Wallace). They are raucous and hyper, and share the car with a reserved young man (Daniel J. Tobin, coming into his own along with his character) who tries very hard not to notice them. He fails.
“Express Tracks,” a 70-minute one-act, needs some refinement in its latter part, when the characters begin to explain themselves by sharing their backgrounds – a story the woman tells about being lulled into the notion that she’d go to Villanova is overly detailed and begins to suck the air out of the train car. That’s not helped by the production; director Lee Kiszonas, who has until that point made sure that the play moves briskly even if the train doesn’t. But she loses her rhythm. For a few minutes, the play uncharacteristically lags.
It manages to recoup, though, and an ensuing give-and-take about who is loved by God and who is not, and who God may or may not be, is fascinating – all the more because it’s coming from characters with believable reasons for their opinions.
Paprzycki invented the tunnel on the rails between Camden and Trenton to suit his plot, but he was forced to invent MetroLine, the name he uses for what everyone else will see as New Jersey Transit’s River Line. The apparent theater critics who run NJT forced him to change the name, saying that the River Line logo could not legally be used fictitiously. Frankly, with a set as fine as Robert Bingaman’s true-to-life River Line interior, and spot-on River Line-type train lighting (by Andrew Cowles) and sound design (Josh Wallenfels), NJT couldn’t have paid for better product placement, no matter what plot unfolds on the train.
“Express Tracks” runs through Jan. 26 at South Camden Theatre Company’s Waterfront South Theatre, 400 Jasper St. in Camden. 1-866-811-4111 or www.southcamdentheatre.org.