Steven Dietz’s Rancho Mirage could also, with justice, be called Dinner with Horrible People, but that title would lack the mytho-poetic cachet of the title actually chosen. So the prolific Dietz’s new story is instead named after the gated community which is its situs, and which suggests the state of his characters’ material and emotional security.
It is a story of three couples, ostensibly the best of friends but in fact bathed in vitriol. Louise (Tonya Beckman) is a sexual adventuress who has stepped out on her husband, the mean-spirited, empty-hearted Trevor (Paul Morella) many times and now, inexplicably, seeks to repair her feelings of guilt by trying to get him to despoil their babysitter (Sydney Lemmon, who does a nice turn toward the end of the play). Charlie (Michael Russotto), whose loopy religiosity hides a boatload of rage, is married to the vinegary Pam (Susan Lynskey), whose recent experiences have left her believing in nothing. And their hosts are the suave, vaguely arrogant architect Nick (James Konicek) and his wife Diane (Tracy Lynn Olivera), a woman so possessive that she calls dibs not only on the babysitter but on her idea for a Tuscany vacation.
They are having dinner in Nick and Diane’s fabulous home (set design by Russell Parkman), with a fantastic view of the lake and, beyond it, the mountains. Too bad it’s heading to the auctioneer’s block and its owners to bankruptcy court. We learn of all of these catastrophes, and of the immense character flaws which have prompted them, in the play’s opening minutes – mostly through malicious gossip directed by one character against another. The rest of the play is about the characters coming to grips with the truth, with each other, and with themselves.
In that way, seeing Rancho Mirage is like seeing The God of Carnage turned inside out. In Yasmina Reza’s play, the characters begin as civilized people trying to resolve a problem, and then turn into savages; in this play, the six characters lead off by showing us their blighted hearts, and then, improbably, fall into grace at the end.
Without giving too much away, the vehicle for this unlikely redemption is Charlie’s inconstant resolution to adopt two Eastern European orphans, damaged by war and circumstances. The play opens with Charlie’s goofy effort to video a segment for his prospective children in which he explains how sweet his friends are; it is, of course, a prelude to seeing how they are not. Thereafter, Charlie’s struggle to keep his dream of fatherhood alive seems to be tied into his dream of his friends’ benevolence, which is the primary mirage of his rancho.
Rancho Mirage is receiving its rolling premiere, meaning that theaters in Phoenix, Denver and Watertown, Massachusetts, as well as Olney, can claim it as a world premiere. It still has some seams showing. Pam’s sudden reversal of viewpoint, and the astonishing solution she manufactures for her dilemma, is a blunt challenge to credulity; Nick and Diane’s early dialogue belies the depth of their financial woes, and periodically you hear lines you know must seem like clunkers on the page.
But this is one of those rare productions in which the quality of the cast covers deficiencies in the text. It is almost inconceivable that a woman whose idea of a good turn is to try to get her husband to sleep with a teenager would be a sympathetic character, but against all odds Beckman does it, radiating a brassy vulnerability which must in some part be her own invention, and that of director Jason Loewith. Beckman also radiates formidable comic chops, particularly in a scene in which she tries – and miserably fails – to console Lynskey’s Pam about the physical challenges the perspective adoptees face.
Lynskey has probably the most difficult job in the cast, in that her character veers off in directions so difficult to anticipate that she seems bizarre. Dietz gives her nothing she can use to anchor the character’s choices, but Lynskey is so in the moment, so decidedly resolute, that it’s easier than it should be to accept them. In real life we might say, “well, that’s just Pam” and Lynskey’s work makes it possible to say that here, too.
Closes October 20, 2013
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd.
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $48 – $64
Tuesdays thru Sundays
The three men also do excellent work. Russoto’s Charlie is somewhat of a reprise of the character he did in Bright New Boise, but fuzzier and more optimistic. The sweetness he brings to Charlie, when combined with Pam’s acidity, prevents the ending from being unacceptably treacly. Konicek mutes his powerful voice (he was a natural to play Big Brother in Catalyst’s 1984) to match Nick’s muted hopes; during the many scenes in which the characters speak over each other Nick is barely audible; and when Nick begins to speak, and then turns away with his thought uncompleted, he is ripe – as he must be – with the odor of failure. And Morella gives us, in Trevor, a man who behind his relentless and furious smile is so consumed with pain and rage that he is hardly a man at all.
Six superb performances transform Rancho Mirage from a comedy about horrible people and the catastrophes that befall them into a drama about flawed but human characters – like us, but a little worse – who are searching to rediscover their hearts. So, brothers and sisters, I say this unto you: go for the show, and stay for the magic.
Rancho Mirage, by Steven Dietz, Directed by Jason Loewith, featuring Tracy Lynn Olivera, James Konicek, Tonya Beckman, Susan Lynskey, Paul Morella, Michael Russotto and Sydney Lemmon. Sceninc design by Russell Parkman; Costume design by Ivania Stack; Lighting design by Joel Moritz; Sound design by Veronika Vorel. Helen Marashall is the Executive Producer; Dennis A. Blackledge is the Director of Production and Shari Silberglitt is the stage manager . Produced by Olney Theatre Center . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.