By Brian Scott Lipton
“Two lost souls on the highway of life. One with no ship, one with no rudder.” These lyrics from the 1955 musical “Damn Yankees” (a show still in my head days after watching the final episode of FX’s fabulous “Fosse/Verdon”) prove to be the perfect summation for Carla Ching’s affecting drama “Nomad Motel,” now making its New York premiere at the Atlantic Theatre Stage 2.
Indeed, this poignant exploration of two teenagers trying to essentially raise themselves in current-day California pierces the heart frequently enough that you’ll want to check in to this “Motel,” even if the show’s too-leisurely pace (a combined fault of Ching’s cinematic writing style, Ed Sylvanus Iskandar’s overly deliberate direction and Yu-Hsuan Chen’s awkward unit set) may cause your brain to check out periodically over its prolonged two-hour-and-20-minute runtime.
The piece smartly contrasts the lives of two high school classmates: Alix (a hard-edged yet vulnerable Molly Griggs) is a bright white student who has essentially been forced to abandon school in order to earn money as a waitress and watch her two (never-seen) younger brothers while living in a series of seedy Anaheim motels. Her childhood home is up for foreclosure and her hapless mother Fiona (a touching Samantha Mathis) seems both incapable and, for a while, unwilling to fix the situation.
To her credit, though, Alix never fully abandons her dreams, even if those dreams change slightly – from going to architecture school (which makes sense for a person who has never felt she has a real home) to running away to New York with her ex-boyfriend Oscar (an excellent Ian Duff), an African-American guy who has been mercilessly kicked around the foster care system. It’s her determination to succeed against all odds that leads to her unlikely friendship with Mason (the superb Christopher Larkin), the super-smart, quasi-wealthy Asian guy who agrees to help Alix with her schoolwork if she’ll help with his college essay.
So, why is this high-achieving teen having so much trouble writing that one paper? Eventually, we discover because he has no interest in pursuing a business degree – a desire which is being insisted upon by his mostly-absent Japanese gangster father James (a pitch-perfect Andrew Pang) — but can’t express why all he wants to be is a musician. And even if it comes as no surprise that Alix unlocks the key to that problem, as well as Mason’s heart; the scenes in which they finally consummate these connections are among the show’s best.
I wish, however, Mason’s backstory made a lot more sense; it turns out he’s not only an illegal immigrant from Hong Kong (really, like no one in the school system has figured that out in four years?), but Ching never makes it completely clear why James would jeopardize his motherless son’s future – he could be deported or worse — by ensconcing him in America. (Can you really not get into Harvard if you live in Hong Kong?) Still, Larkin makes every word out of his mouth utterly believable.
Moreover, Ching is to be commended for reminding us how badly minorities can be treated in this country, nonetheless, the scenes in which we hear or see how both Mason and Oscar are unfairly attacked by the local police feel shoehorned into the script, rather than arising organically. Still, this (and other) issues aside, there are far worse places to spend an evening (at least metaphorically) than “Nomad Motel.”
Photos: Ahron R. Foster
Nomad Motel runs through Sunday, June 23 at Atlantic Stage 2 (330 West 16th Street). For tickets, visit www.atlantictheater.org or call 866-811-4111.