New Rep's "Rancho Mirage": Other Desert Pities

New Rep‘s current production of “Rancho Mirage” is one of the National New Play Network of Rolling World Premieres (now there’s a mouthful) wherein several theater companies more or less simultaneously produce promising works by relatively unknown authors. This play is the latest effort by Steven Dietz, the most successful playwright you’ve probably never heard of. His body of work is said to be one of the most frequently performed of all but a handful of American playwrights. A couple of seasons ago, this network gave us “Bakersfield Mist”, the very funny and authentic-feeling comedy by Stephen Sachs. That was an enjoyable two-hander about art and its perception. This time around we’re presented with three couples who have gathered for a dinner party in the gated community referred to as Rancho Mirage (which also happens to be the name of one of those “other desert cities” referred to on a highway exit sign near Palm Springs). All of the couples have been socializing for the past eight years or more, this time at the home of Nick and Diane Dahner, pronounced “Donner” (Lewis D. Wheeler and Tamara Hickey).

Any resemblance to another Donner party may not be intentional, but it would be apt given the manner in which they all cannibalize one another. Over the course of two hours, after a truly preposterous premise that demands that we accept as reality that one of the husbands, Charlie (John Kooi), has made a life-changing decision without previously informing his wife Pam (Cate Damon), we’re exposed to one after another of a series of implausible revelations. Dietz unfolds these secrets using naturally overlapping dialogue and rhythms of speech, but to say that these confessions strain credulity would be an understatement. This would be less of a problem if his characters and their problems were even remotely funny. In real life, one wouldn’t intentionally spend five minutes with such a cruel group of self-pitying, self-centered and self-loathing overgrown children, let alone two hours. The third couple, Trevor (Robert Pemberton) and Louise (Abigail Killeen) have their own issues involving an underage baby sitter, Julie (Marion Mason). At the beginning and end of the work we‘re told by Charlie that these are the “best people we know”; one can only speculate what the worst people they know might be like. Throughout the course of the play, as each of the spouses reveals her or his tragic event, the self-absorbed so-called friends either don’t hear or don’t care, or both; why, then, should we be expected to?

The cast tries valiantly to make us care. All of them do their best to make their characters believable, as directed by Robert Walsh, but it’s an uphill battle. The technical work is top-notch as is the norm at New Rep, from the Lighting Design by Deb Sullivan to the Costume Design by Amanda Maciel Antunes and the Sound Design by Deway Dellay.  Special mention should be made of the earth-toned Scenic Design by John Howell Hood, one of the production’s more credible aspects, right down to the color-coordinated throw pillows, all fourteen of them.

The Rolling World Premieres concept remains a worthwhile one, even if it occasionally results in a major misstep. Sometimes (as, for example, in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) larger-than-life monstrous people can be fascinating in their mutual destruction, but this play (with George and Martha to the third power) proves that isn’t necessarily always the case. At one point, one of the characters describes the evening as a “why-not night”. Let us count the ways.

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