New Repertory Theatre begins its 30thseason with Steven Dietz’ comedy of modern manners, RANCHO MIRAGE (playing through Nov. 3rd). New Rep is celebrating its long history of presenting innovative, thoughtful theater with new programs like the “Insider Experience” where audiences can venture behind the scenes, witness rehearsals and meet with directors and designers. And New Rep is joining four other theaters in presenting the National New Play Network’s “rolling” world premiere of RANCHO MIRAGE.
Dietz’ play takes three couples, all friends, through an evening of painful, cathartic, comical revelations. Act I aspires to be farce, although it’s not quite directed as such. And Act II means to be biting social commentary, wringing out a warm, fuzzy ending as testament to the power of friendship. For me, it wasn’t and it didn’t and the disconnect left me at sea, I’m sorry to say. And I always root for new plays. ( I liked Dietz’ SHOOTING STAR, about a couple snowed in at an airport, very much.)
Saturday Night Live can handle material (like Dietz’ cringe-worthy jokes about losing a foot to a landmine) because Lorne Michaels and company perform in broad, over-the-top strokes. SNL gets laughs because the audience clearly knows it’s satire and the humor is meant to be outrageous. Style is all important in comedy. Not for nothing do they say “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” But when you place callous remarks in the mouths of characters you want us to care about, it doesn’t wash.
Director Robert Walsh seemed to want a (relatively) naturalistic tone to the acting, which indicates that we’re to take seriously all the issues Dietz raises in one small play. It’s quite a laundry list: International adoption, children orphaned and maimed by war, fetal alcohol syndrome, underwater mortgages, divorce, miscarriage, infidelity, Alzheimer’s, unemployment, religious fervor, betrayal of trust. I could go on.
Dietz reveals and reveals without much payoff, in my opinion. After sixteen bottles of alcohol had been emptied and the characters threw caution to the wind (“why not” one says) to tell each other off, it was nigh impossible to buy the feel good ending, especially the line from the churchgoer that “These are the best people I know.” If the play had been a sardonic romp, then that line would have worked and we would have gone away laughing and thinking what a mess the world is in, if these are its best and brightest.
Now for the good news. New Rep’s talented actors know how to deliver funny lines and they give it their all, succeeding in dribs and drabs. Lewis D. Wheeler brings a nifty Noel Coward style to the piece and Robert Pemberton, a jovial cynicism. John Kooi almost makes the play work all by himself with his hilarious, oddball cluelessness. The women, unfortunately, are mired in Dietz’ peculiar, mean spirited, convoluted dialogue.
Maybe it’s the fault of the sequester (which didn’t make it into the play strangely enough although they used yesterday’s date in the dialogue). I blame the government (which is my favorite line from the movie, “Truly, Madly, Deeply”—a script which, by the way, marries satire to sentiment perfectly.)