“The audience should feel like they’re watching something pretty naturalistic—and it is—it really is…isn’t it?”
Foreword, Rancho Viejo
Mary: “Pete…am I…am I art?”
Dan LeFranc, Rancho Viejo
Dedication page, Rancho Viejo
In his playwright interview with me for The Big Meal, Dan talked at some length about his insecurity as a writer in mining the territory of his youth, Southern California, as a setting for his literary endeavors. As a result, he said, he set his early work in abstract locations, à la Beckett. In time, Dan embraced his background and made it his own, but he has never quite embraced the ethos of Southern California as wholeheartedly as he does in Rancho Viejo. The play offers so many entry points into our understanding of it. I found myself thinking about Beckett, neo-realism, Cervantes, even Casteneda as I considered it. It’s fun to start with Beckett, Dan’s first declared influence. The play’s milky, baffled, married protagonists, Pete and Mary, seem quintessentially suburban, but there’s also something archetypally everymannish about them. It’s not a stretch to compare them to Vladimir and Estragon. The play even starts with Pete looking for his shoes (just as Godot starts with Estragon trying to take his boots off). And when Pete queries Mary insistently about whether she’s happy, he might as well be asking her if they exist; it’s more about existential anxiety than marital restlessness.
I found myself thinking about Beckett, neo-realism, Cervantes, even Casteneda.
Pete and Mary want to belong to their community, but they just don’t fit. Dan sets them up as modest, kind of nerdy, almost childlike. But the other characters in the play are pure California, and not in the kind of showy, slick wannabe fashion we’re used to from the movies. They’re scruffy, indeterminately well-off, and doggedly chill. Dan strips their party banter down to a bare, almost opaque “bro”minimalism. It’s a kind of bold super-realism; let’s call it neo-neo-realism. They’re so anti-metaphysical, that they’re almost metaphysical. Naturally, any time any of them runs into the antsy over-sharers, Pete and Mary, they can’t quite remember them. They’re somehow prototypically anonymous, and Dan has written for them arias of their anonymity. If Dan’s breakout play, Sixty Miles to Silver Lake, is a chamber sonata, and The Big Meal is a choral fugue, Rancho Viejo is his opera.
Or maybe it’s his mock-epic. Pete so desperately wants to matter, he so desperately wants to be a hero in his own mind, and in Mary’s, that he starts to become a latter-day Don Quixote, tilting after windmills. His exploits are daft and untethered, culminating with a sojourn into the dusty hills that surround them, chasing after a dog. This strange, theatrically unmanageable extended scene reminded me somehow of Carlos Casteneda. Pete so wants to claim a new reality that his hallucinations seem to become real. The arid buttes and mesas howl with the weird winds of nearly invisible indigenous spirits. But this scene seems to change us more than it changes Pete. He returns with a half-cocked tale of ludicrous heroism that almost instantly evaporates under scrutiny. But in a way, Mary is just as eager to comprehend her life through an artistic lens. She tries to rustle up interest in group sojourns to view the work of local artists and fixates on the vanity memoir slash novel one of her neighbors is writing. Art, she thinks, will convey some meaning to her life. Her version seems no less tenuous than Pete’s.
But the Art/Life dichotomy that empowers Rancho Viejo feels utterly authentic and compelling. The two-word dedication, “for home,” looms over the play like a prophesy. Dan invites us to take the play personally, to experience the surreal impenetrability of the behaviors that surrounded him growing up. He even includes a character, Anita — perhaps as a gesture towards his Latino heritage — who speaks almost only Spanish. Like the Shona speakers in Familiar and the Korean speakers in Aubergine, the Spanish in Rancho Viejo has a dual function. It both grounds the reality of this community’s historical origins, while at the same time dramatizing its separateness from those origins. Out of such fissures, artists are born.
This is reprinted with permission from Playwrights Horizons.