I genuinely love Dan LeFranc’s Rancho Viejo — and not just because the first thing you hear piped in by sound designer Leon Rothenberg is the Trio Los Panchos version of “Sin Ti” (“Without You”), a bolero that does have something to do with the play. I declare my gleeful appreciation for this quirky work — notwithstanding a brief bump at the beginning of the third act — but I worry that the more I describe it, the more I may turn you off.
Why the instant disclaimer for this snazzy new Playwrights Horizons production? Given that the three acts amounts to three hours of playing time (you see? already some of you are skeptical!), Rancho Viejo increasingly gives the impression of being about very little.
Matt Frey’s lights go up on a Dane Laffrey set that eventually serves as several different residences at what could be taken for a senior community in a warm state (getting oriented to these residences can take a little time). At the top of the play, this is the home where Pete (the always-terrific Marc Blum) and Mary, sometimes called Mare (the always-winning Mare Winningham), discuss happiness. Out of the seeming blue, Pete asks if she’s happy. Puzzled, she responds that sometimes she is and sometimes she isn’t.
Then, and suddenly, Pete and Mary are at a gathering with friends. Patti (Julia Duffy) and Gary (Mark Zeisler) are there and, as their meandering conversation progresses, they divulge that their unseen son, Richard, and his unseen wife, Lonna, are divorcing. The revelation, curiously, brings Pete practically to tears. Also present are Leon (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) and Suzanne (Lucia Strus), owners of big Labrador named Mochi (Marti, giving a lovely performance), which Pete believes is named Patchy. Mike (Bill Buell) and Anita (Ruth Aguilar) are there, too. Anita only speaks Spanish. Mike translates whatever she says at her rat-a-tat pace.
The gang chats about all sorts of subjects, regardless of whose home, virtually indistinguishable on Laffrey’s set, they happen to be in. They ruminate over still-unseen Richard’s marital breakup with still-unseen Lonna and also over the mysterious phone calls that Richard is receiving from someone called — you guessed it — Patchy. They talk about Suzanne’s eye surgery and, among other digressions, Mochi having run off into the night, which leads Pete to launch an obsessive search.
Obsessive is the word for it: Pete’s pooch pursuit takes up the first third of the third act, an interlude that isn’t just long-ish but seems like a left turn from the preceding play. But maybe it isn’t.
What it is, though, is a plot turn that confirms Pete as one of LeFranc’s two central characters. Mary, of course, is the other one. Pete and Mary’s initial discussion of happiness, which at first feels amusingly tangential, turns out to be of LeFranc’s foremost interest. When Mary decides that Pete’s foibles no longer comfort her, she sends him to a motel and treats him like a stranger — until, that is, he performs a helpful deed that shall remain undisclosed here.
Still, notice should also be taken of Tate (Ethan Dubin), a shadowy young figure that lurks about — don’t ask me whose son he is. Tate, who likes to be called Taters, blossoms in Act III. When he meets Pete searching in the dark, he binds him with a sweatshirt and t-shirt, and launches into, of all things, an athletic ballet. The dance is another one of those out-of-left-field Rancho Viejo occurrences. Because Dubin is so lithe, audiences will behold his dance with dropping jaws (no choreographer is credited).
LeFranc’s clever and courageous point is, or seems to be, that happiness, unhappiness and everything in between are present in the small, disregarded, even disdained moments of life.
Dubious ticket-buyers might now wonder why it takes three hours for LeFranc to put this perspective across. The reason is inherent in what the intrepid playwright proves: three hours is nothing when a script is so funny and, from minute to minute, so true as to how most people conduct themselves. A minute or two here and there could be trimmed — but nothing substantial, please.
For its structure and theatrical courage, I’d call Rancho Viejo unique. On the other hand, it’s reminiscent of another shrewd manuscript mounted by Playwrights Horizons: The Flick, Annie Baker’s three-hour play that sent some patrons scurrying home early and subsequently elicited a management explanation. That opus won, deservedly, the Pulitzer Prize.
An additional boost to LeFranc’s script, which he puts on the page as a quasi-poem, is Daniel Aukin’s steady direction of the game cast. In a season boasting several outstanding ensembles, this one rates high for its grasp of behaviors that we all catch ourselves in more often than we like to admit. Another boon to the production is, as noted, those Trio Los Panchos recordings. I’m a total sucker for Rancho Viejo, which runs through Dec. 23, and that’s not crazy. It’s just the way life is.