By Dan LeFranc
Directed by Daniel Aukin
Reviewed by Michele Willens
Theatre Reviews Limited
Would you want to move into a desert community where the homes are interchangeable, and making new friends with the neighbors may feel like high school all over again? In fact, would you even want to spend an evening with someone who does?
If it all sounds fine and dandy, you may enjoy “Rancho Viejo,” the new play by Dan LeFranc, which has just opened at Playwrights Horizons. Gently directed by Daniel Aukin, this three -hour dark comedy is not for those with short attention spans. There are enough awkward silences and long pauses to fill up another play. That said, “Rancho Viejo” has real stuff on its mind, impeccable performances, some good laughs, and more than a few touching moments.
The story, such as it is, follows four couples who gather to drink and snack in the same sandy complex. One set—replete with a long sofa and few chairs– fits all here, and when lights go off and on, we just should imagine that the characters have moved from one home to the next. (One of the repeated lines is “Do you like this house? Would you want to live here?” In fact, they all do)
The only other characters include one couple’s teenage friend, who hovers creepily for two acts and performs an impressive dance in the third. (After tying someone up. mind you) Oh, and there is a well-trained dog whose threatened future near the end of the play engenders more fear in the audience than it feels for anyone of the human variety.
The main couple is comprised of Pete and Mary, who open the play with him quizzing his wife on her happiness level, and ends with her asking if she is more important than a work of art. Sounds heady, perhaps, but this play is anything but. The characters rarely discuss subjects more pressing or insightful than what to put on their sandwiches and the personal affairs of others. For some reason—perhaps boredom—Pete becomes obsessed with the pending divorce of one couple’s son and his pregnant wife. Hey, it’s a desert out there and no one seems to even play golf or mahjong in all that spare time. One character earns a laugh with, ‘we live in a time of great television,” but more specifics could have added texture.
Some have labeled these 50-somethings “boomers,” and while that may fit their age, it certainly does not fit their past or present interest in the outside world. Mary can’t even get the group interested in going to an art fair, let alone wishing the town had a museum. The chattiest character of the lot is Anita, a Guatemalan who met her husband on the Internet. The play is partly about poor communication, so no one seems to blink an eye when Anita concludes her role with a long monologue—entirely in Spanish.
The cast, particularly Mark Blum, Mare Winningham and Julia Duffy, perform well together, handling all those pauses with exquisite timing. Still, “Rancho Viejo” is a difficult show to recommend. It’s not quite strange enough to recall Pinter nor funny enough to conjure Beckett. When one character in Act 3 mentions something “taking so long,” the audience can’t help but snicker. Is this an in-joke or not? The play seems helplessly in search of a conclusion and the final one is too tidy a stretch.