Dan LeFranc’s Rancho Viejo, like his excellent 2012 play The Big Meal, echoes with cosmic significance. The Big Meal was life itself; in Rancho Viejo the subject is more difficult to discern, but it seems to be the way assimilation into a society comes about and the obstacles therein. The title is the name of a residential community that exists in Dane Laffrey’s set as one beige, minimalist, Southern California living room, with floor-length windows upstage looking onto a garden path, no matter which of several homes the action cycles through. The viejo—Spanish for “old”—applies to all but one of the characters, who are firmly in middle age.
Pete (Mark Blum) and his wife, Mary (Mare Winningham) seem to be newcomers to Rancho Viejo, and their strenuous attempts to integrate with the community members they meet is really the focus of LeFranc’s play. Two new acquaintances are Gary and his wife, Patti. A booming-voiced “cool” guy, Gary (Mark Zeisler) has written a book with some life advice and is given to statements like, “Time, man. It’s not forever.” He and Patti (Julia Duffy, her comic timing as sharp as when she was on Newhart), who is beset by alcohol and ennui, have a son, Richard, who is about to split from his pregnant wife.
Pete might as well be a papal nuncio, so roiled is he by the notion of the unseen couple’s divorce. He obsessively follows the latest in the Richard saga, and interferes anonymously through the play’s three acts in the lives of people he doesn’t even know. Meanwhile, he has been neglecting Mary, as they fumble to understand each other in their new surroundings. He tries haltingly to explain why he has asked her if she’s happy: “I think there is… a fundamental tension in the way we live our lives and therefore we take a great deal of interest in those things that are particular to people.”
It’s a failing he has in his own marriage, but it’s also his rationale for intervening in Richard’s life—perhaps spurred by advice from Gary: “You need to stop denying your feelings… burn off the lies… turn up the truth.” Pete’s interference remains secretive, but if he were an animal on a real ranch, he would be a maverick horse whose natural impulses need to be broken for the good of the community—and his own.
Besides Patti and Gary, the neighbors include two other couples, Leon (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), the only black character, and his longtime girlfriend, Suzanne (Lusia Strus), who is, like Patti, a real estate agent, but with an edge. In spite of the women’s rivalry, they are on good terms, although Suzanne and Leon are negotiating a rocky financial relationship.
Meanwhile, Mike (Bill Buell) and his wife, Anita (Ruth Aguilar), who speaks only Spanish, provide additional comic relief, particularly when Mike brings a plastic bag to the parties and fills it with food to take home. The final human character is Tate (Ethan Dubin), a strange, sinister young man. When Pete asks him why he’s called “Taters,” he says, “It’s long for Tate.” (The play is full of quirky humor.) Lastly, there’s Mochi, a dog with three substantial scenes, all delightful.
The assimilation of Pete and Mary is awkward. They forget that Leon and Suzanne don’t have children and ask about their children. Pete continually brings up Richie and skirts the edge of intrusiveness, while Mary repeatedly tries to get the group to go to an art show held periodically in town. Her attempts at bonding, however, usually fizzle.
The production, directed fluidly by Daniel Aukin, nonetheless runs too long and has, like Power Play at the Public, an entire scene in which a character speaks Spanish that is frustratingly time-wasting for anyone who doesn’t understand the language. (One doubts that LeFranc would have let an Estonian character babble on as long in a Baltic tongue.) In Act III, things get weird in scenes in a darkened wilderness, where Taters forces Pete to watch a solo dance he performs bare-chested in the desert night.
By the end, Pete and Mary have been tentatively accepted into the group. Yet, after negotiating their assimilation into Rancho Viejo, LeFranc ends the play on a tentative note for the couple, suggesting that the process of interacting with other people is a never-ending negotiation.
Dan LeFranc’s Rancho Viejo plays through Dec. 23 at Playwrights Horizons (416 W. 42nd St. between Ninth and Dyer avenues). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and at 7:30 p.m. Sunday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, phone Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 from noon to 8 p.m., or visit playwrightshorizons.org.