Rancho Viejo is the fictional community where the lives of four, upper middle-class heterosexual couples in their 50’s and 60’s intersect in playwright Dan LeFranc’s very enjoyable work.
At three acts, with two intermissions and running three hours, Mr. LeFranc’s play doesn’t have the feel of an epic or a major opus, but it is wisely observed and engaging. The tone is simultaneously comic and somber.
Domestic upheavals, health crises, death, the difficulties of maintaining romantic relationships and friendships are among the situations depicted as time goes by.
Much of it is structured as a series of short scenes punctuated by bursts of dimmed lighting at different houses. Peter and Mary are a childless, married couple who have recently moved to the area. They’re both sensitive and philosophical and are the play’s catalysts.
There is also the gregarious writer Gary who is married to icy real estate broker Patti, the amiable IT expert Leon, who is in a long-term relationship with the demonstrative real estate broker Suzanne, and the retired Mike who is married to the Guatemalan Anita.
Pete discovers that Patti and Gary’s son is leaving his pregnant wife. He becomes obsessed with doing something about it. This fixation is the main thread of the play and instigates a number of events.
Offbeat additions to the primary participants include the disaffected male teenager Taters (“long for Tate”) who is vaguely referred to as a friend of one of the couples. Completing the roster is Mochi, a Labrador who darts in and out of the action.
LeFranc’s dialogue is a marvelous blend of the realistic and mundane. The well-delineated main characters all express themselves with true to life simplicity. Plot developments are the combination of subtle details that gradually do build to a satisfying resolution. It all has the sense of John Cheever’s suburban short stories where the darkness behind bonhomie is revealed. Swimming pools are mentioned in passing.
There are a number of cryptic elements that may or may not be significant. Peter and Mary are retired and are well off, though it’s never mentioned what their professions were. They are seen at various gatherings but never entertain at their house.
Veteran actor Mark Blum’s career on the New York City stage dates back to the mid 1970’s. Here, as the inquisitive Peter he has found a memorable leading role that displays his full talents. Wide-eyed and often emotional to the point of tears, Mr. Blum performance is one of tremendous pathos as well as grounded comedy. Blum’s looking for a pair of lost shoes with a flashlight and later a smart phone becomes a revelatory incident that’s sad and funny due to Blum’s effortless intensity.
Since coming to prominence in television movies in the 1970’s as a teenager, Mare Winngham has developed into an acclaimed screen and stage actress. As Mary, Ms. Winningham beautifully conveys the sorrow and loneliness of a woman psychologically unraveling. Trying to plan an outing to a local art fair with her indifferent compatriots builds to a shattering conclusion due to Winningham’s harrowing wistfulness.
Newhart star Julia Duffy at first seems to be overplaying Patti’s abrasiveness but it soon is clear that it’s defensive pose. Ms. Duffy winningly gets a lot of laughs while showing the character’s deeper qualities. The charmingly ebullient Mark Zeisler as Gary hilariously holds forth with a lot of hipsterish jargon. Perpetually upbeat, Mr. Zeisler is equally as effective when he has to be explosive.
With his distinctive throaty voice, the animated Tyrone Mitchell Henderson is uniquely stalwart as Leon. Swilling white wine and wise cracking, the lean and leggy Lusia Strus is wonderful as Suzanne with her Lauren Bacall manner.
Silently scampering about to gather food to take home from various parties, Bill Buell is delightfully droll as Mike. Speaking mostly in Spanish, Ruth Aguilar goes beyond mere comic relief as Anita with her expressive facial features.
The athletic and youthful Ethan Dubin does as much as can with the underwritten role of Tate. That includes a weird and extraneous dance sequence performed in his underwear.
As Mochi the Labrador, Marti, with the guidance of animal trainer William Berloni, is mesmerizing as she dramatically makes her periodic appearances often carrying a small, stuffed giraffe.
Besides realizing such rich performances from the large cast, director Daniel Aukin has also masterfully coordinated the many presentational details into a cohesive and steadily paced production. Mr. Aukin’s staging has successfully realized the play on every level.
The chief element of Dane Laffrey’s arresting scenic design is the spacious, airy, earth-toned living room with its large sectional sofa and appropriate furnishings. Looking at it for hours is pleasing and it inspires the belief that at times we are in different people’s houses. There are also Mr.Laffrey’s atmospheric exterior settings that convey the necessary ominousness with swirling mist.
Lighting designer Matt Frey’s inventive work is constantly evident. The many interior scene changes are indicated with bold shades of rapid dimness followed by intense brightness before settling into normalcy. When some characters are roaming in the darkness outside of their homes, Mr. Frey provides a spooky landscape. Howling coyotes are part of Leon Rothenberg’s atmospheric sound design.
Jessica Pabst’s smart costume design is fully on view with her creations for the women. Each one is vibrantly styled and visually complements each character. The same is true for the men who wear a basic variety of jeans, shorts, and polo and/or button-down shirts.
Like life itself, Rancho Viejo has many intriguing twists and turns.
Rancho Viejo (through December 23, 2016)
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212 279 4200 or visit http://www.playwrightshorizons.org
Running time: three hours with two intermissions