You probably count amongst your acquaintances someone who always over-reacts.
At Rancho Viejo, Dan LeFranc’s Southern California community, it’s Pete (the flawless Mark Blum) who fills the role.
Rancho Viejo, playing at Playwrights Horizons through December 23rd, has a feel like home, but an uneasy home.
Pete is not very imaginative, but he latches onto even the flimsiest of theories that others espouse and runs with them.
His wife, Mary (impeccably played by Mare Winningham) puzzles over his existential questions and keeps a stiff upper-lip.
Have you heard about Ritchie and Lana?
Pete and Mary are clearly misfits at Rancho Viejo, over-eager to fit in with their cooler, hipper neighbors.
These neighbors tirelessly invite them to parties, at which they remain outsiders. Pete attempts to engage, taking their travails very personally. Mary is looking for a close friendship with shared interests. Hers are the art-fair, and she repeatedly asks everyone to join her.
After 2 full acts in which a generic house (in an expansive design by Dane Laffrey) doubles and triples as Mary and Pete’s livingroom, then Jack and Kelly’s, then Leon (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) and Suzanne’s (Lusia Strus) and Patti (Julia Duffy) and Gary’s (Mark Zeisler). the scene changes. We are in the eerie outdoors as Peter wanders the hills and the beach searching for Mochi (Marti.)
Pete’s quest is heroic; like a knight of yore, he seeks to save his neighbors’ dog (more on Marti in the coda to this review.) Along the way he encounters the mysterious “Taters” (“long for Tate,” (Ethan Dubin)) a kid with an old and spooky soul, Pete had met at one of the many neighborhood gatherings. (Lighting designer, Matt Frey meets the challenge of our not being kept in the dark as Pete and Tate ramble about the darkened stage.)
Anita (Ruth Aguilar) and Mike (Bill Buell), who translates her rapid-fire Spanish stories and jokes for the group, also hang out with the gang. Anita’s tales entertain even if they
are incomprehensible to the non-native speaker, while Mike’s translations into Spanish seem only marginally more fluent than Gary’s faux Spanish.
Reality and its discontents
Dan LeFranc has created a comedy of modern manners, and alienations, in a place filled with average folk, folks like us, perhaps. Director Daniel Aukin has found the best tempo for the inhabitants of Rancho Viejo to interact, and share their moments.
In an ensemble that works the hyper-realism of the play to splendid effect, Julia Duffy’s arch Patti and Mark Zeisler’s flirty Gary are outstanding. As everyone in this little group of friends looks to be the center of attention and glory, Lusia Strus’ Suzanne makes a wonderful drama queen.
Let’s go by the Burt Beck rule: If you feel as if you are living their lives, the play has succeeded at suspending disbelief and you have been pulled into its reality.
For information about the Playwrights Horizons season and tickets to upcoming productions as well as for Rancho Viejo, please visit their home site.
I promised you a coda
I am often star-struck, no so much by movie star encounters but most often when I meet stage performers. It was thus a rare privilege to run into Marti getting a between performances walk after the matinee curtain for Rancho Viejo. He is a professional, of course, but also a friendly dog and as lively off-stage as on, and very gracious to his fans.
The day we went was also the annual Santa Bar Crawl, so seeing all the young men dressed in their red nightware with Santa hats atop their heads was also a bit surreal. One young woman was talking on the way out of the theater about having spotted a flock of skinny Santas on a neighboring roof that morning before she left for Playwrights Horizons. As I said, strange doings in our very own real world.