Dinner With Dolts: 'Rancho Mirage' Isn't A Theatrical Feast

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WATERTOWN, Mass. — When Donald Margulies’ “Dinner with Friends” arrived in 1999 it resonated immediately. Watching fortysomething professionals coping with the secrets and lies of their relationships seemed to take the whininess of the TV show, “thirtysomething,” and elevate it to something more artful. A Pulitzer Prize followed and an HBO movie.

Now it seems as if there’s a whole “Dinner with Friends” genre. Seemingly successful marrieds gather together to wine and dine. Secrets are revealed. Unhappiness ensues. I wish I could name a few from the past 15 years, but they disappear from memory like theatrical Etch A Sketches.

I can name the latest, however, “Rancho Mirage,” which is receiving a shared or "rolling" world premiere at the New Repertory Theatre. Remember how those professional couples spent Luis Buñuel’s “Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” trying to get dinner? This is kind of the same thing only they don’t leave the house and it’s realistic instead of surrealistic.

One other thing. There isn’t any charm.

Its author, Steven Dietz, is one of the country’s most performed playwrights, though he hasn’t had that many local productions. I had liked what I’d read and seen by him, particularly Shakespeare & Company’s “Private Eyes,” a play about marital fidelity that was constantly upending expectations.

“Rancho Mirage” plays to expectations, particularly to a preconception that people who live in gated communities are isolated, out of touch, and really rather ridiculous. Of course if that’s the case and they’re not worth our consideration, why write a play about them? Or, for that matter, go to one about them?

Cate Damon and John Kooi don't see eye to eye in "Rancho Mirage" at the New Repertory Theatre. Rear: Tamara Hickey and Robert Pemberton. (Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Photography)
Cate Damon and John Kooi don't see eye to eye in "Rancho Mirage" at the New Repertory Theatre. Rear: Tamara Hickey and Robert Pemberton. (Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Photography)

The script isn't terribly funny despite some chuckles here and there. There’s a hint every now and then that Dietz is warming up to say something about consumerism in America (“The United States of unwanted crap”) but then just returns to his increasingly improbable storyline of three couples taking turns spilling their guts, with very little prompting, about impending bankruptcies, divorces and religious disillusion.

And as improbable as are their scenes of revelation the scenes of reconciliation make an even further trip from nowheresville. Film critic Andrew Sarris called these moments Instant Ingmar, referring to Ingmar Bergman, and writer Mark Edmundson termed them pop transcendence. I call them hooey.

At this dinner from hell, just as a for instance, there are at least 10 bottles of wine and 13 glasses of beer drunk by the six characters who remain stone cold sober the whole time. That’s just as well as the only thing worse than a boring yuppie is a drunk, boring yuppie. The point is that credulity is not a strong suit of "Rancho Mirage."

The smartly assembled cast does what it can with the characters and three of them — Robert Pemberton, Cate Damon and Tamara Hickey — are actually funny. Director Robert Walsh’s work is usually more energetic, but the characters themselves are so enervated I don’t know what he could have done differently. John Howell Hood’s modern, upscale, earth-toned apartment is perfect and composer Dewey Dellay’s music is always just right.

The title, “Rancho Mirage,” refers to life’s little lies — the gated community that’s called a ranch, financial success that isn’t, marital happiness that isn’t. (“None of you have any f--- idea how totally alone you are,” says one of the characters.) All good subjects. All good subjects worthy of a better play.

This program aired on October 16, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.




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