Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

Rancho Mirage
New Repertory Theatre

Cate Damon, Lewis D. Wheeler, Tamara Hickey, Abigail Killeen and Robert Pemberton
Playwright Steven Dietz's new dark comedy Rancho Mirage is set in a gated community in an American city where there has never been a ranch and any body of water is surely a mirage. As it turns out, the mirage metaphor comes into play on many levels as three affluent suburban couples gather for a dinner party where the foundations of their friendships and marriages are shaken by a series of twists, turns and reveals, exposing the limitations of familiarity and intimacy shared with even those closest to us. Dietz serves up a sumptuous menu of topical themes while skewering the denizens who believe their privileged lives should cloak them from suffering the indignities of the less advantaged.

A couple of decades ago, Dietz's characters would have been yuppies with the world at their feet. We meet them nearing mid-life, when their once shiny American dreams have taken on more than a bit of tarnish and they are struggling to stay afloat financially, emotionally, or spiritually. The one thing they can count on is each other, for better or for worse. Nick (Lewis D. Wheeler) and Diane (Tamara Hickey) are hosting the party in their beautiful southwestern-style home (exquisite scenic design by John Howell Hood, with warm lighting by Deb Sullivan) for their friends and Rancho Mirage neighbors Trevor (Robert Pemberton) and Louise (Abigail Killeen), and Charlie (John Kooi) and Pam (Cate Damon) who live somewhere outside the gates. Before their guests arrive, Diane gives Nick a rundown of all the verboten subjects of conversation in order to ensure a smooth evening. Despite her best efforts, it is anything but.

New Repertory Theatre is one of four regional theatres in the United States partnering in the National New Play Network rolling world premiere of Rancho Mirage. Director Robert Walsh has his finger on the pulse of the play, pacing the action with appropriate speed during scenes with convivial conversation, and bringing it to a screeching halt for moments of unmitigated incredulity. With three to six actors onstage throughout most of the dialogue-driven play, there are occasions when people are speaking over one another as often happens at a party, and Walsh's direction gives a musical quality to the flow of these scenes. In the latter part of the second act, a largo stretch contrasts poorly with the allegro tempo that precedes it, but that can be ascribed as a portion of the script that needs tightening.

Otherwise, after having his characters meander back and forth in their relationships throughout the night, Dietz manages to connect the dots and tie the storylines into coherent conclusions. It is unsettling, yet comical, to watch these longtime friendships unravel as old secrets and recent lies are revealed; no one escapes unscathed once the gloves are off. The New Rep ensemble offers genuine performances across the board, but the women in particular mine every nugget of their characters' diverse personalities in their fully realized portrayals. It is an oversimplification to describe Diane as shallow and uptight, Louise as brutally honest and fiery, and Pam as alternately bland and weepy, but Hickey, Killeen and Damon quickly establish these traits which differentiate the women before diving to greater depths as the evening wears on and defenses are lowered.

The men are as different from each other as they are from their wives. In contrast to Diane's need for control, Nick is easygoing and unflappable, and Wheeler comfortably wears his relaxed fa├žade. He smiles a lot and downplays most of the affronts they face, until the stakes are raised in the second act and he reacts to a perceived threat with anger and agitation. Trevor's jovial demeanor seems to offset Louise's blunt approach, but Pemberton hints at the underlying danger of his darker impulses until the time comes to unveil his secrets. Only Charlie is open about his intentions from the get go, and his unilateral decision to adopt two foreign children sets up the initial conflict within the group. Kooi combines single-minded cluelessness with purity of purpose to make Charlie's quest seem not entirely wrong-headed, but he gets an awakening and undergoes a change of heart under the influence of the others.

It is the playwright's intention to send up these farcical characters and Dietz throws a lot of themes at the wall to see what will stick. There's something for everyone, including financial ruin, foreign adoption, spoiled children, infidelity, envy and hurt feelings, to mention just a few. With the rapid-fire dialogue, character exposition and unexpected things happening in the first act, Rancho Mirage is totally entertaining. The pattern continues in the second act, although the string of reveals stretches beyond the point when we ought to be preparing for denouement. However, these six Equity actors and Marion Mason in a small, but pivotal, role as Julie the babysitter, deliver Dietz's message that what you think you see is only part of the story. He is really interested in how the characters respond to the pressures they face and how that affects their marriages and friendships in the end. When all of the trappings are stripped away, are their relationships real, or merely a mirage?

Rancho Mirage, performances through November 3 at New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, Massachusetts; Box Office 617-923-8487 or Written by Steven Dietz, Directed by Robert Walsh; Scenic Designer, John Howell Hood; Costume Designer, Amanda Maciel Antunes; Lighting Designer, Deb Sullivan; Sound Designer & Composer, Dewey Dellay; Production Stage Manager, Leslie Sears

Cast (in alphabetical order): Cate Damon, Tamara Hickey, Abigail Killeen, John Kooi, Marion Mason, Robert Pemberton, Lewis D. Wheeler

Photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Photography

- Nancy Grossman

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