In Dan LeFranc’s sprawling suburban mini-epic Rancho Viejo, an older man named Pete finds himself at odds with the universe, or, at least, an affluent, semi-gated community of California where he and his wife have recently moved. Early on in the play, Pete asks his wife, Mary, whether or not she is happy, and when forced to explain the motivation behind his question, haltingly states, “We are white people… and… we are also people who… occasionally… read books and watch television shows about people like us who are… in situations not unlike the situation in which we find ourselves.” One searching for the “point” of the play later on would do well to pay attention to Mary’s eventual response: “What you’re saying is… that people like us… in the situation of… marriage… we are somehow pushing against our nature… our animal nature… and that’s hard… so therefore we are invested in the ways in which other people struggle with the same things we struggle with?”
The textual ellipsis are LeFranc’s, and the understated performances evoked by his strange, three-act exploration of suburban ennui among aging Americans are halting, sad, funny, and somehow suspended in time. Clocking in at three hours (including two intermissions), Rancho Viejo doesn’t just take its time; it literally takes time – grasping at those pauses and holding onto them as the characters speak and then wait. They wait for something – anything, really – to carry them through the social anxiety to the next moment. Outside, coyotes often yowl in the desert. An unsettling cloud of invisible menace fills the gaps between utterances. It’s the same feeling that you may have been overcome by when visiting a grandparent in their new home, in some overly large yet somehow always darkened living room full of the vast emptiness of space that rooms take on when nothing is actively filling them with life, or meaning.
Pete and Mary are new in their community, and we first encounter them in their sparsely decorated living room as Pete searches for his shoes under the sectional couch. They are going to a get-together. The event is located at one of their new neighbor’s houses, and their departure and arrival to said get-together is theatrically achieved by a simple turning-down of the overhead stage lights, and then turning them back up again. The set remains exactly the same, but the house is now someone else’s. The joke, one supposes, is that all of these layouts and houses are virtually identical; it’s easy to imagine them from the outside – huge, ostentatious, a pool out back, looming between the Californian desert and ocean, a ridge of human habitat uncomfortably placed between the water and the sand.
It’s in one of these identical living rooms that Pete and Mary encounter their neighbors, Gary and Patti. Gary is writing a book (it’s between three hundred and four hundred pages long, he says) and calls everyone he meets some variation of “dude” or “hombre.” His icy wife, Patti, generally un-amused by her surroundings, sells real estate. Later, they encounter Suzanne (who is white) and Leon (who is black), to whose party Mary and Pete will unwittingly arrive two hours early bearing a stone toad as a house-warming gift. Suzanne claims to have a hole in the back of her eye that makes it hard for her to see people’s heads. Leon is tall, and works in IT. They have a dog named Mochi, who makes occasional onstage appearances and is played, adorably, by a real dog (named Marti).
Eventually, the location might be the living room of Mike and Anita, who also make appearances at all the other get-togethers (Mike takes food from the various buffet spreads that are laid out behind the couch and stows them in a gallon-sized Ziploc bag and translates for his wife, Anita, who speaks only Spanish.) Occasionally, a creepy young man named Taters appears, leaning up against the wall, or lurking on the porch. He’s apparently friends with Gary and Patti, and that’s about the extent to which his presence is explained until the third act, when he makes an indelible impression on the play that is somehow no less mysterious than before.
The bulk of the dramatic conflict in the first two acts is derived from Pete and Mary’s complete unease in these benign and interchangeable encounters, coupled with Pete’s strange and developing obsession with a relationship which is not his own. Having no children, it is perhaps understandable that Pete reacts with outsized empathy when he finds out that Gary and Patti’s son is getting a divorce from his pregnant wife. It’s harder to determine why Pete begins to call this son from various telephones (mostly landlines) attempting to get more information, or perhaps just hoping to find a way to have some impact on something that is plainly not his business to have an effect upon. Given that the plot highlights his series of bad decisions (phone calls, mistaken utterances) that must then be covered up or somehow otherwise explained, it’s tempting to view Rancho Viejo as a semi-tragic comedy during the first act; but the comedy fades under our prolonged gaze in Act II, and then completely vanishes in Act III.
In a play this long, there’s a certain expectation for the final act. Having spent considerable energy investing in the banal interplay between these suburbians, there’s a hope for something different – something bigger? Yet, it’s hard to predict exactly what any single audience member might be expecting from the concluding act, and it’s safe to say that what actually happens cannot be predicted. Without divulging too much, think of a particularly surreal moment from a Coen Brothers film (The Big Lebowski popped into my head while viewing) and you’ll be in the right mental ballpark. This vast departure in visual presentation and to some extent style is functionally mysterious but also erases the gap between what could be and what is – it’s hard to parse what we’re seeing. Is it Pete’s dream? Is it really happening? Where are we?
Where we end up, though, is back where we started, only looking in instead of out. LeFranc is determined to give us an accurate depiction of people like us, and our struggle, and is invested in the idea that we’ll discover something of meaning or use, even if there probably isn’t – all things considered – all that much to find. Whether or not you’re okay with the empty landscape at the end of the tunnel is – admirably on a formal level, but riskily on an emotional one – left up to you.