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Rancho Viejo

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 6, 2016

Mare Winningham and Mark Blum
Photo by Joan Marcus

When you've landed somewhere you feel you don't belong—or you know you don't belong—everything just seems wrong. Personalities clash unintentionally, words don't land with the desired impact, and barriers spring up where they just shouldn't be. Although we've all experienced this to one degree or another, it's rare to see it dramatized as vividly as Dan LeFranc has managed in his new play Rancho Viejo, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons. In fact, this fascinating but severely overdrawn evening doesn't work precisely because LeFranc has done this far too well.

Its underlying scenario, though, couldn't be simpler. Pete and Mary (Mark Blum and Mare Winningham) are a middle-to-late middle-aged couple living in the titular Southern California suburb and not having an easy time of it. Not that they exactly know this. They're invited to parties and they have friends they've made there—close ones, too. But non-superficial connection eludes them both, with their interests and attitudes not aligning with those of anyone else except each other.

When their own bonds begin to weaken and falter, an uncertain situation becomes dire, and Pete and Mary discover just how at odds they are with their surroundings and the people in it. Tiny stumbles of speech elicit huge controversies, minor mistakes have explosive implications, and an existence that appears comfortable from the outside becomes as fraught as it could be outside of a war zone. It's a lot to resist and move past, but for Pete and Mary—really, for any of us—what other choice is there?

It's a rich subject because of its universality, and there's something unavoidably compelling about seeing it rendered in this way. These are two ordinary Americans who speak such a different language than everyone around them, they are unable to communicate. (This is, in one case, literal: A friend of a friend named Anita, played by Ruth Aguilar, is an immigrant from Guatemala who knows practically no English.) And when they crumple and fade, the underlying hopelessness is palpable. How can you make things right when no one has done anything wrong?

This is a story that should tell itself and, in the best scenes (scattered throughout the first two of the three acts), does, against the beautifully repressive design of Dane Laffrey (the menacingly elegant earth-tone sets), Jessica Pabst (costumes), Matt Frey (the correctly harsh lighting), and Leon Rothenberg (sound). Unfortunately, this is not enough for either LeFranc or his director, Daniel Aukin. They've piled on so much additional "color," "content," and "plot" (scare quotes absolutely intended) that the underlying, moving tale of contemporary cultural alienation must fight for its life during every single second of the play. And because Rancho Viejo clocks in at more than three hours, this tiresome and irritating approach becomes the default lens through which everything else must be viewed.

Mare Winningham and Mark Blum with Julia Duffy,
Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, Ruth Aguilar, Lusia Straus,
Mark Zeisler, Ethan Dubin, and Bill Buell
Photo by Joan Marcus

To begin with, only Mary and, to a drastically lesser extent, Pete are allowed to be remotely real. Their neighbors and friends, who are played by the talented performers Bill Buell, Julia Duffy, Mark Zeisler, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, and Lusia Straus, move and speak like Macy's mannequins, with halting tones and disjointed personalities, while still projecting a balcony-scraping broadness that makes their every line and motion utterly false. The goal is to keep us at as great a remove as Mary and Pete, but by eliminating any and all of these people's potential attraction, Mary and Pete look dimmer for craving it so.

There's also an adolescent character, Taters (played by Ethan Dubin), who may or may not be an anthropomorphized spirit of chaos (he seems to exist solely to execute an extraneous dance in Act III), and this yanks the play still further out of the realm of the plausible.

A dizzying amount of stage time is devoted to Pete's obsession with the failing marriage of the son of two other characters', with behavior that oscillates between betraying confidences at one end of the spectrum and genuine harassment at the other. The other chief subplot involves another couple's dog (played, excellently, by the William Berloni-trained Marti) escaping and Pete embarking on a truly desperate attempt to find her, though they have nothing to do with each other. We're supposed to marvel at and sympathize with, I guess, a man who's so consumed with others' grief that he's barely able to see that his own world is disintegrating, but because Pete's actions vary from inexplicable to abrasive and even offensive, he becomes more of an impediment to an ordered society than a representation of where and how it goes wrong.

Rancho Viejo alternately resembles the works of Annie Baker and Sarah Ruhl, the former in its pursuit of epic subtext and the latter in its application of an almost random magical realism. But LeFranc doesn't find a way to make these potentially contradictory techniques work together; like Pete and Mary and their friends, the suburban tragedy and the existentialist comedy occupy the same space, but never truly interact, so neither convinces. Reconciling them is not impossible—Baker did it in John (seen at Signature last year) and Stephen Karam did it in his still-running The Humans, the former by referencing the supernatural and the latter by suggesting it—but any attempt must go beyond mere lip service.

Only Winningham completely connects the dots, showing us how Mary can thrive in both of the dimensions she's caught between: corporeal and crazy at the same time. Yet she's also honest, and in tune with her environment in a way no one else is, so, on some level, everything she does makes total sense. Blum can't go that far—no actor could with such a tangle of a part—but through his portrayal reveals the loss that powers Pete at home. That's something, and it gives the scenes in which Pete and Mary sift through their personal rubble the fragile, tender sheen they need.

Everything ought to have the unfettered urgency of those moments, but by the final act, which is given over entirely to hyperinflated minutiae, you all but give up on it. With so much going on, the two people who ostensibly matter most get lost—the universe, heck, just the human landscape, is too big to accommodate them except under certain conditions. But in the best plays, the bigger picture emerges through the smaller one, and from then on they inform each other until they're all but inextricable. The burning question that emerges from Rancho Viejo isn't "what will happen to Pete and Mary?", or, better yet, "what will happen to all of us?", but rather, "If no one else cares, why should I?" I'm not sure anyone can answer that one.

Rancho Viejo
Through December 23
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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