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A CurtainUp Review
Rancho Viejo

"Are you happy?" — Pete to his wife Mary.
Mare Winningham and Mark Blum (Joan Marcus)
When Pete (Mark Blum) asks Mary (Mare Winningham), his wife of many years if she's happy, he's opening a can of worms— or, as is the case in Dan LeFranc's Rancho Viejo, he's setting off a whole bunch of existential quandaries. Unsurprisingly, those quandaries are as elusive as the shoes he was looking for before his interchange with Mary.

To apply that are you happy question to my own state of mind on my way to seeing LeFranc's Rancho Viejo at Playwrights Horizons' Mainstage Theater, the answer would be affirmative. I was indeed happy to be seeing another play by the author of the excellent The Big Meal , also at Playwrights Horizon.

LeFranc's new play promised an interesting contemporary comedy with a top notch, generously sized cast and one of the theater's outstanding young directors. With Daniel Aukin at the helm, and Mark Blum and Mare Winningham playing key roles, I would have added "what's NOT to be happy about?"

Mary's initial answer that she's happy in her life with Pete is challenged as the play unfolds. It ripples to the look-alike homes of their neighbors at the California suburban complex at a time that the program describes as "recently, but not that recent" (probably just before the ever present smart phone and the internet's social media explosion).

On exiting the theater, however, I, like Mary, found much in the leisurely three hour play challenged my expectations of an engrossing, funny evening. Sure, Aukin and his crafts team nicely captured LeFranc's realistic surface as well as the surrealism underneath. And Mark Blum and Mare Winningham are terrific as the central couple in this roundelay of scenes in the Rancho Viejo homes. No complaints either about the performances by the actors playing those neighbors, even though LeFranc's characterizations of those neighbors made them more archetypes than real people.

Since I don't mind plays that take their time to develop and run long, I wasn't put off by the 3-hour running time (I hear was even longer initially). The main plot situation focuses on the 60-something Mary and Pete reactions to adjusting to their move from a never defined somewhere else to this affluent, year-round good weather. Though they've made new friends, they're not really in synch with this homogenized world where people socialize but never really connect — a disconnect symbolically represented by one character who speaks only Spanish (Ruth Aguilar, the Latina bride who Bill Buell's Mike met on the internet).

The generic scenery evokes memories of the way The Big Meal's modern Our Town-like family history successfully combined realism and abstraction in a similarly generic setting (typical restaurants instead of typical suburban homes). But Rancho Viejo's slow-building combination of super realism and its more absurdist underpinnings don't merge as smoothly or all that meaningfully. And for all my support of 3-hour plays the from< Big Meal's 85-minutes to Rancho Villejo's three hours isn't really warranted.

The big existential questions about the meaning of happiness and life in general are explored through several sub-plots: a lost dog named Mochi (one of William Berloni's as usual scene stealing rescue dogs named Mart), and a creepy teenager named Tate (Ethan Dubin) who mysteriously pops up here and there (most notably in a weird dance probably intended to reveal have some sort symbolic meaning). Unfortunately, those subplots ultimately work mostly as quirky distractions.

Pete's obsession with one of their neighbor's never seen son and daughter-in-law's marriage split gets the realistic comedic aspects of the play to an amusing enough start. His obsessive and almost child-like curiosity and meddling begins during his and Mary's first visit to Rancho Viejo neighbors Patti (an amusingly wry Julia Duffy) and Gary (Mark Zeisler on the mark as a with-it talk spouting good-time Californian).

The realistic setting and leisurely pace notwithstanding, the first two acts leave us with as many unsatisfactorily addressed questions as the last. of all these conversations especially of the first act, notwithstanding. While Rancho Viejo isn't specifically referred to as a retirement community, none of these people seem to have even part-time jobs. And except for Patti and Suzanne (Luisa Strus) who have some amusing exchanges about their real estate careers, we don't have a clue as to what work they ever did. Clearly, it paid well enough for Pete's satisfaction with their finances which as he puts it isn't "tons of money" but enough someone were to hack into their bank accounts "they'd feel pretty good about what they stole."

Dan Lafferty's single set for this and other homes is a perfect visual metaphor for the bland, unexamined lives bred by these physically comfortable life styles. But marvelously eerie as his second set for the third act is (with applause also warranted for Matt Frey and Leon Rothenberg's lighting and sound), it doesn't save the play from a crash landing.

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Rancho Viejo by Dan LeFranc
Directed by Daniel Aukin
Cast (In Order of Appearance): Mark Blum (Pete), Mare Winningham (Mary), ,Bill Buell (Mike),Julia Duffy (Patti), Mark Zeisler (Gary), Tyrone Mitchell Henderson (Leon), Ruth Aguilar (Anita),Ethan Dubin (Tate), Lusia Strus (Suzanne), Marti (Mochi)
Sets: Dane Laffrey
Costumes: Jessica Pabst
Lights: Matt Frey
Sound: Leon Rothenberg
Animals: William Berloni Theatrical Animals
Stage Manager: Kyle Gates
Running Time: 3 hours, including 2 intermissions
Playwrights Horizon Mainstage Theater 416 West 42nd Street
From 11/11/16; opening 12/06/16; closing 12/23/16
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 12/05 preview

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