The first question retiree Pete (Mark Blum), asks his wife Mary (Mare Winningham), in Dan LeFranc's weird, enjoyable play is "Are you happy?" I'm not sure how anyone could be happy living with Pete, who obsesses more on the lives of people he doesn't know than on the needs of his own wife. Mary hasn't thought much about whether she is happy and, when she does start thinking, she finds her marriage unsatisfying. Nobody seems to think much in this play filled with characters whose lives seem to be lived totally on the surface and who seem to have no meaningful connections at home or among their so-called friends. RANCHO VIEJO is named after the California subdivision where these characters live. One unchanging living-room set serves as the domestic spaces of four different married couples. Clearly their homes are interchangeable. One character speaks in Spanish, which only her husband can understand, but the other characters listen intently as if they understand. Their conversations in English don't suggest much connection. Pete and Mary have a gift for saying the wrong thing in every social situation. One neighbor has a hole in her eye that makes it impossible for her to see heads, so recognizing people is a problem. Even the dog seems oblivious to its master and mistress.
Mary seeks solace in art, but it isn't clear what spiritual enrichment can come from the pictures of whales that she admires. She hopes a shared love of art will provide some connection with her friends, but that seems doubtful. A neighbor has written a book that uses culinary imagery to convey life lessons. He wants Mary to create the cover art even though it isn't clear that she can draw or paint. Tate (Ethan Dubin), a rather strange young man who appears mysteriously in people's houses, forces Pete to watch his artistic creation, a bizarre dance that seems part martial arts, part pole dance. The dance may represent Tate's inner self (if he or any other character in the play has such a thing), but Pete totally rejects it. Toward the end of the play, Mary asks Pete, "Am I art?" It's a nonsensical question to which Pete tries to give a rational, comforting answer but it belies the bafflement these characters experience if they start reflecting on their hollow existence.
I recount these details to give you a sense of the play's bizarre vision of meaninglessness and disconnection. RANCHO VIEJO is funny in places. It's an oddball vision of suburban life. The first two acts of this three-and-a-quarter hour play are static and repetitive. This is more an observation than a criticism. LeFranc is showing us static, repetitive lives. The two acts are never dull. Act Three takes Pete on an odd, funny, fascinating nighttime odyssey.
Daniel Aukin has given the play the sweet, somewhat surreal atmosphere it needs. The cast is excellent, particularly Blum, who gives Pete, the central character, a sweet, kooky quality. I loved watching Julia Duffy's face in the group scenes. Everyone acts as if this were a realistic play. The style is a mix of American domestic realism and absurdist dramas like Ionesco's work and Albee's THE AMERICAN DREAM. Here, however, these vacuous folk are immensely likable.
I thoroughly enjoyed RANCHO VIEJO. If I had any reservation, it is that the cozy resolution seemed unearned and unconvincing.