It can certainly be said that Dan LeFranc has taken a lot of chances with his new play Rancho Viejo at Playwrights Horizons. He has written nine distinct characters (along with one well-trained dog) who are often on stage all at once. He has also allowed his own writing to breathe to such an extent that Rancho Viejo lasts for three hours with two intermissions, and yet this maximalist canvas is very often patiently, bewilderingly minimalist in tone and effect. Set in the southern California of DeFranc’s own youth in a somewhat recent past, Rancho Viejo is in no hurry to go anywhere much, and it doesn’t even feel the need to get anywhere at all, or build anything, or even finally say anything specific. Instead, this is a play that wants to drift, and to be only what it wants to be.
Mark Blum and Mare Winningham play Pete and Mary, a long-married and nerdy couple who have become a bit isolated and lonely. The meek, passive aggressive Mary has had a falling out with a long-term friend, and so she is anxious to make new friends but neither she nor her husband fit in with the people they have encountered as retirees. Mary has a tough time even getting to know Patti (Julia Duffy) and Suzanne (Lusia Strus), two women who sell real estate and make a point of rejecting her as if they were all still in high school. The set in the first two acts mainly consists of a long sectional couch that functions as the living space for all of the older couples in the play, and this serves to emphasize the interchangeability of their lives.
The problem with Rancho Viejo as it has been staged in this production is that the actors have all settled into very one-note grooves, particularly the men. In the first scenes, Duffy is clearly trying to complicate the particular woman she is playing, but by the midway point she has settled for the impenetrably snobby shtick that has been her stock-in-trade since the TV show Newhart, and Winningham is often too sweet in a role that could really use some darker shadings. On the plus side, Ethan Dubin, who plays a menacing kid named Tate, does a very original dance in the third act that is funny partly because it doesn’t feel like it has any clear point or reason for being there.
The three-hour running time goes by smoothly and easily, but that in itself is a problem. For this play to really come to life, there needs to be more specificity in the playing and in the interactions between all the people on stage, and a far greater tension that could then be released when Anita (Ruth Aguilar) does an aria in Spanish about the death of her boyfriend Mike (Bill Buell). Rancho Viejo is a play that admirably follows the beat of its own drum, but that beat is far too faint here.