Rancho Mirage

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday October 17, 2013

The cast of "Rancho Mirage"
The cast of "Rancho Mirage"  (Source:Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Photography)

Steven Dietz's new play, currently at the New Rep as part of its "rolling world premiere," has some serious thinking behind it and some hilarious moments, but it doesn't hang together any better than the social connective tissue it shreds.

It seems to be one of those truisms of human life that the very people we look to for strength, solace, and security are the ones we also scorn, even abhor, on some deep and secret level. Many playwrights have explored this dual nature of family connections, but Dietz expands the circle of love and contempt to include our closest friends in "Rancho Mirage."

The title alone tells you plenty about where Dietz is coming from. It's natural to want to create a comfortable home not only in the architectural spaces where we dwell, but in the community structures we rely on. "Rancho" suggests the gated community where the play takes place; "Mirage" undercuts that implicit sense of snug security.

"Mirage" also puts the play's finger right on another duality that Dietz places front and center: How we can both love someone and yet not really know them at all. We're each alone, one of the characters in this dark, often serrated comedy laments, and therefore cut off from any true knowing of spouses, children, or friends; what the play's characters leave unsaid, but personify to various degrees, is the extent to which our lack of knowing extends also to ourselves. Imagination and expectation fill in the gaps, at least to an extent, but those gaps can be deep, wide, and treacherous: The unwary can easily fall into them, and that's what's happened to the six people who converge here.

These six individuals come in pairs: Nick (Lewis D. Wheeler) and Diane (Tamara Hickey) have sent their kids off to stay with a (not so favorite) aunt for the night, in order to enjoy what might be a final dinner party before their lives change in a major, and possibly irrevocable, fashion. The guests are Trevor (Robert Pemberton) and Louise (Abigail Killeen), a married couple of thirty years (and two children), and Pam (Cate Damon) and Charlie (John Kooi), a childless, churchgoing couple.

At least, Pam and Charlie used to be churchgoing. After being scammed by members of their own congregation, each of them is dealing in different ways with the shock and anger of betrayal from within their faith community. Pam has stopped going to church; Charlie continues to attend, but he has hatched a scheme that, in his questionable frame of mind, promises to more than make up for the sins of those who violated what should have been a (literally) sacred trust.

There are deeper problems plaguing Pam and Charlie, and they come to the surface as the play unfolds. Similarly deep dysfunctions emerge between Nick and Diane, who are facing bankruptcy, and Louise and Trevor, who seem overly blunt and straightforward at the beginning but who also turn out to have thorny problems hiding in their relationships, and in their overwrought psyches.

The comedy in "Rancho Mirage" lay in the way one veil after the next is whisked away, exposing the perfect lives of three affluent professional couples for the train wrecks they really are beneath all the trappings of success and marital bliss. But the problem with the play also lies here, as revelation after revelation keeps coming to the fore, sometimes in direct contradiction to things revealed (and responses provoked) only a short time earlier. The steady stream of shocks and twists thrums on, well into the stage where, deep into the second act, more reflective (and less jolting) material might have been warranted.

It's a rocky ride that runs roughshod over any subtler elements. This seems to be a deliberate choice, given that Dietz's symbolism is so overt: Empty closets in one couple's home signify a more crucial emptiness that's far more worrying than depleted bank accounts, while the home renovation project of another pair that's gone awry sketches in the shambles into which their marriage has degenerated. One male character has taken to mending torn clothing; "I like the idea of thread," he explains, in a resounding line that should find its way into a book of quotations, even though the transparency of how he's displacing his anxieties leave one rolling one's eyes.

There's nothing wrong with any of this, per se, but it does tend to underscore the overwrought nature of the story and characters. For every moment of acute insight (Louise laments that she is only "capable of change for the worse"), there are two or three moments of incomprehensible lunacy (such as when the idea is floated that the best way to adopt foreign children is for the American parents to re-locate to the nation from which the children hail -- presumably to learn their language and customs and, in cases where the tykes dwell in poverty and ruination, share their misery rather than lifting them up from it).

This is a play both dramatically specific and comically lightweight; outrageous license is taken and almost instantly forgiven; friends and spouses verbally hammer one another one moment, only to collapse into tickle fights the next. The stage directions call for an awful lot of wine and beer to be chugged, and you can see why: None of these people are in their right minds. It's hard to relate to people who are so over the top (or so swacked), which makes their rollicking house party an awful lot of fun for them and only intermittently entertaining for us.

There are, however, many quite funny moments in the play. Damon may be saddled with a sad-sack character, but she has two of the best gags, and she plays them with pitch-perfect aplomb. Killeen plays Louise larger than life, but Louise is larger than life, and the actress has a keen sense of just when and how to reign it in, so as not to stray into parody. (This is, in many respects, a farce -- but farce and parody are two different things, something that director Robert Walsh keeps in mind.) And the play also has some serious thinking behind it, making some worthwhile points about relationships of all sorts; those points are just a little hard to see in the glare of so much antic mayhem.

The production has its flaws, but the overall design is not one of them; John Howell Hood has created a set that's as sumptuous as it needs to be to serve as counterpoint to the hard and ugly realities that keep poking holes in the connective tissue of social nicety, and Dewey Dellay's score and sound design lend an additional element of gloss. Deb Sullivan's lighting is moody, and helps us track time (the light outside the windows deepening into dusk and then nightfall as the hour grows late), and Amanda Maciel Antunes helps sell even the most irritating of the characters with the appropriate wardrobe. This production looks and sounds fantastic -- score a full ten points for the "Mirage."

"Rancho Mirage" continues through Nov. 3 at the Charles Mosesian Theater at the New Repertory Theatre, 321 Arsenal Street in Watertown. For tickets and more information, please visit www.newrep.org


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Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.