Suburban angst again, in ‘Rancho Mirage’


The cast of “Rancho Mirage,” now playing at Olney Theatre Center through Oct. 20. (Stan Barouh)

Boy, when best friends gather in “Rancho Mirage” — the name of both the new play and the deceptively idyllic subdivision of playwright Steven Dietz’s imagination — bottles of wine aren’t the only things that are opened and served. Old wounds, ancient grudges, petty swipes, recitations of the angst and despair marinating behind sun-dappled doors: These are the pass-arounds that really get the party started.

The other notable feature of social life in Rancho Mirage is that while everybody talks, nobody listens. Characters toss painful facts and truths at one another — I’m broke, they’re getting a divorce, we’re over you — and barely pause to digest them. Time waits for no plot turn! Not to worry, though, because in this sanctuary for the passive-aggressive, there are always plenty more secrets where those came from.

The problem arises in this “rolling premiere” of “Rancho Mirage,” a debut occurring at Olney Theatre Center and in three forthcoming productions in Denver, Boston and Indianapolis, that since no one on stage ever pauses to consider the impact of the revelations, we’re given no opportunity to, either. And so the play rambles on, piling epiphany on epiphany and cliché on cliché without much in the way of insightful aside or logical structure, until at last everyone collapses into the fancy furniture, purged and exhausted.

“It’s like watching a sitcom,” I heard a young woman say, approvingly (I think), during intermission. And yes, there is a certain cozy familiarity to “Rancho Mirage” and the tropes it recycles, “Desperate Housewives”-style, about what’s really going on in the privileged precincts of Viking ranges and three-car garages. It isn’t difficult to sit through, thanks to the respectable treatment by director Jason Loewith and the untaxing exercise that unfolds on the Olney mainstage. Let’s face it though, “not unbearable” is hardly the ringing endorsement a theater company wants to hear.

Olney, under Loewith’s artistic leadership, is trying to up its game with more varied fare, and the more challenging work of putting on new plays. Good for them. Dietz, a practiced hand whose plays have been performed for years at major festivals and regional theaters, was a reasonable candidate for helping widen the theater’s palette. It just turns out that at this juncture in the multi-theater rollout, “Rancho Mirage” doesn’t register as one of Dietz’s stronger or better-knitted efforts.

The play takes place in a gated community where, it seems, the gates enclose more trouble than they keep out. Diane (Tracy Lynn Olivera) and Nick (James Konicek) are throwing a little party in their handsome wood-and-glass home — expertly designed by Russell Parkman — for their closest friends. What the friends don’t know is Diane and Nick have hit financial rock-bottom. As in, having to dig into the cushions for loose change. (Turning destitution into an excuse for a soiree is just one of the play’s many conceits that might have been workable, but seem strange in the execution.)

Soon enough arrive the friends, with whom they share the bonny-seeming intimacy of fellow travelers: Louise (Tonya Beckman) and Trevor (Paul Morella) and Charlie (Michael Russotto) and Pam (Susan Lynskey). The evening turns maudlin and chaotic without much warning, as each couple makes a life-altering announcement and soon, accusations and confessions rain down, as if from a sprinkler of bad karma. Some of the outbursts are the garden-variety expressions of middle-age ennui, and others are attempts at Albee-esque darkness, as in the odd recounting by Trevor and Louise of having followed Diane and Nick to their favorite vacation spot in Italy, only to have hidden from them once they got there.

The couples’ childish acting-out feels in some ways an echo of the yearning for suburban liberation apparent in another current production, Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s “Detroit.” That play, however, takes a far more raucously, psychologically sophisticated approach to revealing how fragile is the shell of financial and social well-being that distinguishes a stable household from one spinning out of control.

The cast members of “Rancho Mirage” dutifully fulfill their fairly colorless assignments. (I was never fully convinced that any of these people liked one another, which is why the ending struck me as especially false.) Konicek is most successful here, managing to suggest in Nick’s hale-fellow countenance that as coping strategies go, denial may not be so unhealthy after all. And Beckman proves to be the bravest, allowing us to see unflattering aspects of a character that might explain a partner’s turning cold.

The personalities of the partygoers, though, are all muted by the volume of dramatic disclosure with which the playwright bombards us. As overstatements go, not even the intentionally loud hues of Ivania Stack’s outstanding costumes can compete.

Rancho Mirage, by Steven Dietz. Directed by Jason Loewith. Set, Russell Parkman; costumes, Ivania Stack; lighting, Joel Moritz; sound, Veronika Vorel. With Sydney Lemmon. About 2 hours 15 minutes. $31-$63.50. Through Oct. 20 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Visit www.olneytheatre.org or call 301-924-3400.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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