“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” That famous line delivered by Bette Davis as diva Margo Chandler in the 1950 film “All About Eve,” came to mind while watching three couples who are supposedly close friends begin to verbally attack one another once the wine begins to flow at a dinner party in “Rancho Mirage.” An acerbic comedy by Steven Dietz, it opened Friday at the Phoenix Theatre on stage at the Katrina Basile Theater and continues through Nov. 24.
A National New Play Network (NNPN) Rolling World Premiere, “Rancho Mirage,” was first presented at Olney Theatre Center (Olney, Md.), followed by New Rep (Watertown, Mass.), then at the Phoenix and ending at Curious Theatre (Denver). “Yankee Tavern,” another play written by Dietz, who is one of the country’s most widely-produced playwrights, was produced by the Phoenix in 2010. “Becky’s New Car,” another of Dietz’s works was presented by the Indiana Repertory Theatre that same year.
Bryan Fonseca, producing director of the Phoenix, directed the production with a cast that consists of Phoenix regulars Bill Simmons (Trevor Neese), Sara Rieman (Louise Parker), Jolene Mentink Moffatt (Diane Dahner), Diane Timmerman (Pam Caldwell) and newcomers Earl Campbell (Nick Dahner), Joshua Coomer (Charlie Caldwell) and Amber Beaty (Julie).
Rancho Mirage is the name of a gated community and the location of the up-scale contemporary-style home (depicted in designer Dan Tracey’s superb set) of Diane and Nick Dahner, who invite two other couples, Trever and Louise Parker (she prefers to be called by her maiden last name, Neese), and Charlie and Pam Caldwell, their longtime friends, to a dinner party.
Dietz's plot is predictable and sitcom-like. All the members of the close knit group are carrying secrets and tons of baggage. One of the couples is undergoing money problems, a marriage is severely damaged in another and the third has a struggle that involves children. Fueled by alcohol, tongues are loosened and truth emerges to the painful detriment of everyone present. During the fast paced proceedings, with scenes separated by lightnight fast blackouts, things are funny and light until individuals and the couples themselves begin to turn against one another in a bloodletting that only worsens as the gathering progresses.
There’s a lot of tension, angst and recrimination in this razor-sharp commentary on contemporary society, which is sort of a cross between “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and “God of Carnage.” But despite their individual and collective neurosis, the vulnerability of each character shines through, making each of them likeable despite their individual flaws and annoying idiosyncrasies.
Each cast member was believable but Moffatt gave the strongest performance as fastidious, possessive, domineering Diane Dahner, the dinner party hostess who goes to great lengths to keep up appearances when in fact her carefully controlled world is crumbling around her. In fact, it is hers and husband Nick’s secret about their true financial situation that best exemplifies the word “Mirage,” in the play’s title.
Diane Timmerman was understated yet often hilarious as sour, self-pitying Pam Caldwell, who is blind-sided when she discovers that her earnest, religious-oriented husband Charlie, played effectively by Joshua Coomer, has made a major life-changing decision involving both of them without consulting her.
Back at the dinner party, after all the astonishing revelations have been made and devastating secrets told by evening’s end, the play’s characters, all of whom, up to this point, have been pretty vicious towards one another, seemed to come together in reconciliation. Prior to this Kumbaya moment, they had revealed such terrible animosity towards one another that the play’s conclusion rang a false note, leaving this writer to wonder “Who needs enemies with friends like these?”
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