Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Rancho Viejo ** C-

When I looked back at my review of Dan LeFranc’s previous production at Playwrights Horizons (The Big Meal in 2012), my heart sank. If I found that one overlong at 90 minutes, how would I possibly make it through his new 3-act play, which clocked in at 3 1/2 hours at the first preview? (It’s down to 3 hours 5 minutes as of last night.) From what I gather, there have been so many changes almost nightly that the play might be substantially different by the time it opens next week. I doubt that its essential core will be altered though. Basically, it’s a look — a long look — at the vacuousness of comfortable suburban life in a fictional community in Southern California, likely in Orange County. Add to that several absurdist touches and a few less than profound discussions of the nature of happiness and art. We meet four couples, three of retirement age and one still working, plus an enigmatic teenage boy and a scene-stealing dog. The main focus is on Pete (a marvelous Mark Blum) and Mary (a subdued Mare Winningham), a childless couple who have just moved to town and are trying without much success to fit in. Pete is a marvelous creation. If there were an Olympic event in social awkwardness, he would take home the gold. Mary might nab bronze. One of the play’s main sources of pleasure is to await the next unbelievably awkward remark out of Pete’s mouth. Forget Asperger’s; he’s on a spectrum of his own. Mary’s problem is subtler: it is her neediness for friendship that drives people away. When Pete learns that Richie, the unseen son of Patti (Julia Duffy) and Gary (Mark Zeisler), is getting divorced, he becomes inappropriately upset and obsessed with the idea of saving Richie’s marriage. The other couples are Mike (Bill Buell) and Anita (Ruth Aguilar). The vibrant Anita is Guatemalan; she has a few long speeches in Spanish that go untranslated. Leon (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), an African-American IT guy, and Suzanne (Lusia Strus), a real estate agent with an eye problem, are an unmarried couple with a large dog Mochi (Marti). Much of the first two acts takes place at parties at the home of one couple or another. Since the same set (by Dane Laffrey) represents the generic Southwestern living room of all four homes, it is sometimes hard to figure out where a given scene is taking place. Not that it matters much. Tate (Ethan Dubin), the sullen teenager who has little to do except lurk in the first two acts, comes into focus in a very strange scene near the beginning of Act 3. Does he ever! Jessica Pabst has dressed everyone aptly. Daniel Aukin’s direction seems attuned to the material. There are several funny moments, but the plot and the character development are minimal. I doubt that these are people that you would seek out to spend an evening with. I was pleasantly surprised that very few audience members left during either intermission.

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