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Rancho Viejo
Photograph: Joan Marcus

Theater review: In Rancho Viejo, suburbia has never seemed weirder

Written by
David Cote

Put a gun to my head and make me synopsize Dan LeFranc’s new three-hour play, and I might stammer, “California couples hang out at parties snacking, and, er, someone’s dog goes missing?” Even though Rancho Viejo sprawls like an out-of-control subdivision, packed with meandering chitchat and folks drifting in and out of adobe-colored living rooms, there’s not a ton of conventional “what.” Unless you count art, love, marriage, nature and death. You know: the little stuff.

Our heroes (though grand-sounding, it fits) are spouses Pete (Mark Blum) and Mary (Mare Winningham), retired, childless, on the shy side. She spends her time cruising art fairs, and Pete, well, he doesn’t seem to have much purpose in life—until he learns about marriage troubles for the son of his neighbors Gary (Mark Zeisler, heartily fatuous) and Patti (Julia Duffy, primly acidic). Pete becomes comically fixated on the plight of this offstage domestic crisis, which, of course, obliquely mirrors his own fraying marriage. He brings it up every chance he gets, which makes everyone vaguely uncomfortable. Meanwhile, Mary retreats into herself, feeling shunned and appalled by everyone’s apathy toward art.

That description might make the piece sound neat or preachy, but it’s too weird for that. LeFranc (The Big Meal, Sixty Miles to Silver Lake) blends bold formalist tricks with deep empathy for his characters’ frailties and fears. His first two acts are a series of scenes that deliberately blur the boundaries between households (Dane Laffrey’s perfectly bland unit set barely changes). At times Rancho feels like a deadpan suburban comedy of manners in slow motion. But for the last hour, LeFranc breaks his temporal and spatial rules, forcing a comic resolution (marriage, reconciliation) that mingles the uncannily artificial with the generously human.

Such semi-absurdist tactics could be deadly with mediocre actors or clueless design, but director Daniel Aukin’s immaculate production shines with a smashing cast (including Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, Lusia Strus, Bill Beull, Ruth Aguilar, Ethan Dubin and a very talented mutt named Marti). The play is consistently funny throughout, wringing laughs from social awkwardness and non sequiturs as people negotiate each others’ egos or vie for dominance. Confirmed connoisseurs of Annie Baker and Will Eno will be at home. If, however, you need familiar plot devices and thematic signposts to enjoy drama, be warned: Rancho Viejo may seem oddly constructed and furnished, but it’s magnificently strange and welcoming once you get through the door.

Playwrights Horizons (Off Broadway). By Dan LeFranc. Directed by Daniel Aukin. With ensemble cast. Running time: 3hrs. Two intermissions. Through Dec 23. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote       

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