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In Rancho Viejo, everyday life has mystery
Dan LeFranc likes plays that are "either gigantic, or small and fast." His new show Rancho Viejo, now at Playwrights Horizons, arguably falls into both categories at once.
On the gigantic side, the play runs over three hours, features nine characters, and has some massive tonal shifts. At the same time, though, it centers around seemingly small stuff.
Set in a fictional, Southern California suburb, the action follows a group of neighbors who are retired (or nearly retired.) They awkwardly gather at one party after another, and eventually, their strained quietude is disrupted by the collapsing marriage of a young couple that lives miles and miles away. At a certain point, a "hero" emerges whose journey ties these threads together, creating an existential comedy with deep pockets of pathos.
"It's been a strange process," says LeFranc, describing how this show emerged from a scene he wrote for another play. "I've probably written at least 1200 pages of Rancho Viejo. I wanted to let the characters keep talking – some characters in the play emerged late, some are amalgams of characters from the last few years. It didn't have a structure until the last two or three years." (He estimates he's been working the script for five years.)
With the finished work in front of him, he sees something meaningful in its long running time. "We binge watch TV shows all the time," he says. "Each act is a little under and hour. So it's kind of like I'm going to watch three episodes of this show. Here's the pilot: Want another? If you would rather have dinner and a drink, that's fine. But I think the play rewards those who stay."
It's fitting that the subtitle of Rancho Viejo is "a suburban sprawl," implying that it takes up of space. In fact, LeFranc says there were early attempts to wrestle with the length, but ultimately "it resisted domestication. It was like, 'No, I will not be an 80-minute one act! No, I will not be two hours! You must bring me to the wilderness.'"
To that end, it seems appropriate that the writing process took the form it did. "It feels important to this story that it follows a creaky old structure we don't see much of anymore," says the playwright. "In order to really feel what happens at the end of the play – in order for it to land – you need to spend time with these people. I don't think you could achieve the same feeling if it were a one act."
In certain ways Rancho Viejo washes over you like the ocean or a glimpse into a desert landscape. Some of most meaningful moments are beautiful, yet difficut to describe. "My favorite is when someone tells me, 'That was incredible, and I don't know if I get it,'" LeFranc says. "There are parts of this play that aren't necessarily meant to be understood on an intellectual level."
Writer and performer Eliza Bent is a regular contributor to TDF Stages.
Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo: Mare Winningham and Marti.
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