by Michael Bracken
Where’s Luis Buñuel when you need him? Perhaps at Playwrights Horizons, at least in spirit. That’s where Dan LeFranc’s wry Rancho Viejo is currently in residence, redolent with echoes of Buñuel’s classic film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
Set in a suburban community in what seems like the American Southwest (but near the ocean and with Santa Palma winds), Rancho Viejo is populated by an incestuous bunch of middle class clones. They follow each other like the Pied Piper’s rats as they trudge from one home to the next to enjoy, or at least endure, one get-together after another.
Their houses are strikingly similar. In fact – a touch Buñuel would certainly have appreciated – they’re exactly alike, because there is only one set, and it serves as the living room for whatever couple is hosting that week’s/day’s/ moment’s mixer.
Designed by Dane Laffrey, the room is decorated in quiet good taste, if you consider a sectional the length of a football field good taste. The capacious space, accented with Navajo design touches, is great for a party, which is fortuitous, since these people might as well party. They can’t escape no matter how hard they don’t try, trapped by their self-satisfaction. It’s also good for a laugh, as when Patti (Julia Duffy), a realtor, asks Pete (Mark Blum) and Mary (Mare Winningham) if they wished they lived in a house that’s a carbon copy of their own.
The single house/multiple homes leitmotif creates an undercurrent of surrealism: reality is relative. Director Daniel Aukin blurs the lines even further, as scenes overlap and cast members almost bump into each other on their way on and off the stage.
Like Buñuel but with a softer touch, LeFranc skewers the comfortably middle class, whose lives are as fungible as their houses. Pete and Mary, his central couple, start the play off with a philosophical exchange, concluding that people like them – white, with money, married, occasionally reading books and watching TV shows – are invested in the ways their peers struggle with the same things they do. In other words, their outlook on life is completely self-referential.
At the first of a series of gatherings, they’re joined by Patti and Gary (Mark Zeisler), who reveal that their son, Richie, is getting divorced. Pete takes this news very much to heart. He’s only met Richie once, but he’s devastated and becomes obsessed with the subject, talking about it constantly, eavesdropping when Gary gets a call from Richie and even trying to reach Richie at work. Blum finds the right combination of stealth and sincerity as Pete feels genuine concern for Richie but also a disproportional sense of involvement.
While not nearly so intense as Pete’s, Mary has her own obsession: the art fair. She talks about it, goes to it, encourages others to go to it, tries to organize a car pool to go to it. She feels betrayed when she learns her “friends” have gone without her. The usually excellent Winningham is completely believable but just a little bit whinier than one might wish.
Patti and Gary introduce Pete and Mary to Suzanne (Lusia Strus) and Leon (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson). They have a dog, Mochi (Marti), who runs away. Pete goes to the beach to track Mochi down, only to be bound and gagged by Tate (Ethan Dubin), Patti and Gary’s teenage friend. The dog is retrieved by Anita (Ruth Aguilar), who speaks very little English and is happily married to Mike (Bill Buell), who speaks very little Spanish. Meaningful verbal communication between spouses is not a prerequisite for a lasting marriage in Rancho Viejo.
Rancho Viejo holds up surprisingly well given its three-hour length. Its low-key humor keeps popping up where it’s least expected. While never gripping, it never loses us either. That only happens to its characters, and they don’t even know it.
Photos: Joan Marcus