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A CurtainUp Review
Perhaps this is why I'm somewhat ambivalent about Nomad Motel, Carla Ching's meditation on growing up in America now in its New York premiere by the Atlantic Theater Company. There's some heart here, and some wisdom. But too often I found myself wishing the play would have the courage of its convictions, or at least of its characters.
Set in California and directed carefully, almost dreamily, by Ed Sylvanus Iskander, Nomad Motel tells the story of two teenagers and their dysfunctional families, particularly their single parents.
Alix (Molly Griggs) is a rough-edged, strong-willed young woman with a love of architecture and making spaces beautiful. But her home life, represented by single mother Fiona (Samantha Mathis), is a mess. Her two younger brothers are wild, always moving from school to school. With the family always on the edge of eviction, neither they nor Alix have ever had real stability since Fiona seems incapable of pulling it all together.
Since it's difficult for Alix to focus on school, at first it seems fortunate that she is paired with Mason (Christopher Larkin), an intelligent but socially awkward boy originally from Hong Kong who spends his days overachieving in his classes. The problem is that he spends his nights alone in an empty house, trying to please his demanding (and absent), not quite on the right side of the law father James (Andrew Pang)— and engaging in his true love: playing guitar and composing music.
Obviously the situation is tense at best. When Alix gets kicked out of her ex-boyfriend Oscar's (Ian Duff) place, and Mason loses his father's financial support, the two have only each other to try to and figure out how to manage largely on their own.
As I've written it above, this is a compelling premise, and indeed there are flashes of insight into the lives of people who have resisted the easy cynicism of our age—in fact, those who prove that such cynicism is the exception rather than the rule. Some interactions between Alix, Oscar, and Mason are poignant, and even Fiona and James are given some complexity in their portrayal, aided by good work from the actors and nuanced direction from Iskander.
Yet despite this, something is missing in this production which, for all its complexity, seems at pains to keep its audience at arm's length. The slow, dreamy pace of the narrative may have something to do with this; also, there isn't much of a throughline, other than the looming deadline of Alix and Mason's school project. Since it's not clear if Alix or Mason even care about the final results of said project—Alix isn't all that big on school, Mason's into music, but the teacher's cool, so maybe it's all okay, but not really. . .so. . .whatever?—that just seems to be another milestone to reach rather than something with real weight and tension.
Instead of really leaning into the disaffection and longing of the kids, we get some awkward, forced banter, an embarrassingly obvious metaphor involving nursing an injured bird back to life and an eye-rolling ending —plus a lot of confusion about why the two parental disasters here are even given the time of day by their far more able and generous kids. It's as if the playwright is afraid to really let Alix and Mason be fully themselves, at least not unless it's through "socially acceptable" methods of rebellion: drugs, sex, and plenty of foul language. But none of these things land as they should, because the whole process feels like going through the motions. Real rebellion wouldn't require the kids to choose from a menu of options provided mostly by their parents
In fairness, Nomad Motel does gather steam as it continues, and as I've said, there are some genuinely lovely moments. But I couldn't help but feel somewhat disappointed when the house lights went up. The play is described as being about "the intersection between two groups of children who find themselves interconnected in ways that profoundly alter and unify them." It's a shame that in its caution, this production doesn't give us a chance to feel those profound interconnections, held as we are at a respectful, isolating distance: interested but not truly invested in the children's lives.
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Playwright: Carla Ching
Director: Ed Sylvanus Iskandar
Cast: Ian Duff (Oscar), Molly Griggs (Alix), Christopher Larkin (Mason), Samantha Mathis (Fiona), Andrew Pang (James)
Set Design: Yu-Hsuan Chen
Costume Design: Loren Shaw
Lighting Design: Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew
Original Music & Sound Design: Emil Gardner Xu Hall, Enrico de Trizio
Running time: Two hours with a ten minute intermission
Atlantic Theater Company Stage 2, 330 West 16th St., (212) 691-5919
From 5/22/19 to 19, opening 6/3/19
Tuesday-Sunday @ 7:30 p.m., Saturday-Sunday @ 2:30 p.m.
Tickets: $41.50 partially obstructed, $56.50 regular admission, $66.50 premium admission
Reviewed by Dr. Gregory A. Wilson based on June 2nd preview performance
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