At one of the continual neighborhood get-togethers in “Rancho Viejo,” Dan LeFranc’s new play at Playwrights Horizons about the residents of a fictional California suburb, one of the characters says he likes the weird books his college graduate son left in his garage: “They’re not exactly the kind of thing that’s gonna catch your attention from the start…they’re kinda like what I guess you’d call like a slow burn?” He then compares them to surfing: “I mean nothing’s happening out there for hours, but then if you’re patient the waves come rolling in one after the other….”
With this passage, the playwright is obliquely making a promise to the audience. And yes, waves do eventually roll in at “Rancho Viejo” – or at least the sounds of waves, during a nighttime scene at a beach. But “Rancho Viejo” is largely a tease of a play that is three long hours full of deliberate banality. The play, with a stellar cast portraying nine characters plus a dog, is subtitled “a suburban sprawl.” It mocks, or perhaps just reproduces, the desultory rhythms, affluent ennui and existential anxiety and loneliness of middle class, middle aged California suburban life. The design emphasizes the monotony; there is no effort to make the various living rooms look any different from one another.
Yet, at the same time, there are moments from the start that seem slightly off-kilter, leading to an accretion of weirdness that keeps us hoping it all will wind up meaning something.
While all nine characters (plus the dog) get their moments, “Rancho Viejo” focuses on the couple Pete (the always reliable Mark Blum) and Mary (Mare Winningham, the screen actress who has quietly triumphed as a regular on the New York stage.) They are the sort of couple so bland that their neighbors Gary and Patti (Mark Zeisler and Julia Duffy) keep on asking about Pete and Mary’s kids, not remembering that they don’t have any.
Gary and Patti do. We learn early that their adult son Richie (never seen on stage) is getting a divorce. This startles Pete, and then it obsesses him. His obsession with Richie’s divorce, which drives him to take odd action, is the closest that “Rancho Viejo” comes to a plot.
LeFranc is best known for “The Big Meal,” his 2012 play, also at Playwrights Horizons, that depicted one family at dinner over several generations. Rather than compressing decades of significant events into 90 minutes, as he did in that play, LeFranc now does the reverse, taking twice as long to stretch out minutia. One feels tempted to compare “Rancho Viejo” to “The Flick,” which also started at Playwrights Horizons, where it provoked complaints from some theatergoers that it was too long, but went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Both plays take their time to offer small details about everyday life and emotions that feel well observed, both have moments of quiet amusement, and both, despite extraordinary casts and fine direction, are probably better reads than physical excursions for many theatergoers.
In the more diffuse “Rancho Viejo,” however, the playwright is playing games with our expectations. Weird things happen to Pete and Mary. Somebody calls them each morning and hangs up without speaking; it’s part of their morning ritual. They (and we) are mystified by the presence of a teenager named Taters (Ethan Dubin) at the various get-togethers of their middle-aged friends; their encounters with him weird them out, and, in the most gripping scene, scare Pete. In the most accessible action of the play, Mary, whose best friend has moved away, tries to become better friends with the other characters.
What does this add up to?
One senses that the characters are questioning (mostly unconsciously) the meaning of their lives. But the playwright seems more interested in exploring the meaninglessness of their lives, or perhaps of lives in general; there’s an absurdist and nihilist bent to “Rancho Viejo.” It’s not surprising that LeFranc has expressed his admiration for Samuel Beckett. Somebody might remind LeFranc that as Beckett got older (and wiser), his plays got shorter.
At Playwrights Horizons
Written by Dan LeFranc
Directed by Daniel Aukin
Set design by Dane Laffrey, lighting design by Matt Frey, costume design by Jessica Pabst, sound design by Leon Rothenberg
Cast: Mare Winningham, Mark Blum, Julia Duffy, Bill Buell, Ruth Aguilar, Ethan Dubin, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, Lusia Strus, Mark Zeisler.
Running time: Three hours, including two intermissions.
Tickets: $39 to $89
“Rancho Viejo” is scheduled to run through December 23, 2016.