The Little Engine That Could: Arlene Hutton And Her Last Train to Nibroc

The Little Engine That Could: Arlene Hutton And Her Last Train to Nibroc Never tell playwright Arlene Hutton the New York Times has lost its power to make or break a show.
Alexandra Geis and Benim Foster in Last Train To Nibroc.
Alexandra Geis and Benim Foster in Last Train To Nibroc. (Photo by Photo by Carol Rosegg)

Never tell playwright Arlene Hutton the New York Times has lost its power to make or break a show.

Back in March, things looked grim for her World War II comedy-drama, Last Train To Nibroc. On March 4, there were eight people in the audience, almost lost in the 65 seat 78th Street Theatre Lab.

Then came the D. J. R. Bruckner review in the March 5 Times. By the end of the day, nearly the rest of the run had sold out.

"I had heard of the power of the 'Times,' but I'd had never really seen it in action....Also, all the 'suits' started showing up. I had never had 'suits' come and see my play! Every Off-Broadway producer saw Nibroc, I think. That was pretty amazing," Hutton said.

Although new to Off-Broadway in its current run at the Douglas Fairbanks, Last Train to Nibroc is not a new play, but a piece that's had a five- year history. Hutton started writing it in late 1995, early 1996 and first premiered a one-act version at the 1996 Edinburgh Fringe Festival under the direction of Judith Royer. Royer, a Los Angeles director, often helms Hutton's work but was unable to continue with Nibroc after the move to New York City was definite. 78th Street's Michael Montel took over in 1998, directing a few New York readings. Hutton liked the way he worked with the actors, Benim Foster and Alexandria Geis, who have been with the play since its inception. Together, the four brought Nibroc to the New York Fringe Festival.

The March run with the Times review followed the New York Fringe. Then 1999 brought a return trip to Edinburgh, where the piece played the Ensemble Rooms, one of the three largest Fringe spaces.

Hutton marveled at the reaction to the play there and here. "I thought the little old ladies would like it and indeed they did. But what really surprised to me that it somehow speaks to an audience of twenty year olds as well...I guess it just says that it has universal themes: going after your dreams, overcoming prejudice, growing up. People identify no matter what your age."

Nibroc came from a biography of S. J. Perlman, who, aside from being a well-known writer himself, was brother-in-law to the writer Nathanael West. When Hutton read the account of West's death, she realized that he and F. Scott Fitzgerald had died within days of each other and their bodies were probably being carried on the same train from the West to the East Coast.

"I thought that was a fascinating little-known fact of American history, that these two great writers were dead together. I wanted to write about that, but not about them. So I just put two people on that train to see how that fact would affect what was going on with them," Hutton said.

Added inspiration came from her father and mother, who fell in love and married in that time period. "I based the characters loosely on my parents, although none of these things really happened to my parents."

More than them, Nibroc speaks in the made-up voices of poor, good natured, epileptic Raleigh, who wants to be a writer, and the rich, high minded May, who wants to be a missionary. As far as Hutton is concerned, those two characters wrote the play.

"My background is improv so when I write, I usually put two or three characters in a room together and see what they say to each other. Writing for me is like taking dictation. It's a fun way to work. I never know where it's going; I never know what's going to happen and I discover it as the characters do. And then I rewrite for years," Hutton said.

To follow her Train, Hutton is turning to hurricanes and the Shaker lifestyle. Tropical Depression will be a contemporary drama, spurned on, not by Hurricane Floyd, but a desire to write for a specific group of actors. Scenes From Shaker Life will look specifically at Shaker women and has been on Hutton's plate for a couple of years.

And, of course, there will be always be more one acts.

Right now, however, Hutton is enjoying the success of her play, especially in light of recent Off-Broadway fare. She said, "It surprised me that what is really a sweet play has been so well received in the New York community. Here where we see so much edgy stuff with contemporary language and brutality and violence, both emotionally, verbally and physically , that a play like this, which one of the London reviews compared to a Jimmy Stewart movie, that people still want to see something like that. I think that's really terrific."

-- By Christine Ehren