For a while I try to figure out why I'm enjoying Rancho Mirage — currently having a rolling premiere at Curious Theatre Company and a couple of other companies nationally — so much. True, the dialogue is swift and clever — as Steven Dietz's dialogue always is — and the characters are vivid, if not particularly deep or likable. But the trials and tribulations of the three couples involved are standard-issue — infidelity, money problems — and they're also presented in ways that are completely, off-the-map absurd. We start off in the expensively furnished, gated-community home of Nick and Diane. As they wait for their guests and discuss the wine Diane has bought — is it the right kind? How much did she pay for it? — we learn that they're bankrupt: Nick, an architect, has had no work for some time now. Trevor and Louise, who arrive soon, are having marital problems. Charlie and Pam harbor shifting and conflicting ideas about having children. So there are big issues, including who will take care of whose children if tragedy strikes, and also idiotic little ones, like why teenage Julie is babysitting for Trevor and Louise and neglecting Nick and Diane — who, Diane passionately asserts, have dibs on the girl's services; differing versions of a holiday spent in Italy; how much Pam hates to be called "Pammie" while Diane has always wanted a nickname, Didi, that no one will bestow on her. Even the dopey arguments mask deeper grievances and griefs. There's a lot these people don't tell each other, and many things aren't at all the way they're discussed and remembered.
Mostly, though, the couples' predicaments are impossible to believe. Charlie tricked his friends into vouching for him and then applied to adopt a baby from Eastern Europe without telling Pam? Hardly likely. Oh, no. What he actually did was ask for two.
So I settle in for a black-hearted comic farce. Clearly these people will end up tearing each other apart, and that should be fun to watch, even if the warring-couples device isn't particularly original.
Presented by Curious Theatre Company through December 7, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org.
By intermission, I know what to expect in the second act: Everything spurting off in crazed directions. Noises Off-type chaos and disintegration. So I'm puzzled as the action becomes tinged with real sadness even as the plot twists remain ridiculous. I'm finding these people less cartoonish and even feeling a little empathy for them. It's true, I'm thinking, friendships are that crazy. You hold grudges against your dearest friends, engage in subterfuge, hurt their feelings or have yours hurt by them — and then show up with homemade chicken soup when they have the flu.
A native of Denver, Dietz is a playwright I've enjoyed since first encountering his work when Curious staged Inventing Van Gogh years back. (The company has since produced several of his plays.) One thing I know about Dietz is that he's a cunning plotter, so I decide to look to the structure of Rancho Mirage for an explanation of its emotional effect. In act one, you have that centrifugal movement. But instead of proceeding to the logical endgame in the second act — hysterical sobbing, crazed recriminations, someone brandishing a knife or gun — Dietz simply changes the direction of his spinning. Now the currents are centripetal, a return to a center of doubtless temporary but still touching gentleness and peace and an ending as satisfying as sweet cream. Or Diane's fantastic salad dressing.
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The cast is damn near perfect. Bill Hahn, who plays Nick, always carries a hypnotic impact: When he's on stage, you can't help looking at him, and when he's not actually doing anything, you tend to follow his focus to whoever is. He can be quietly understated or crazy funny. There are equally fine performances from Erik Sandvold as uncomprehending, over-emotional Charlie; Emily Paton Davies as mousy, nurturing Pam; and David Russell, whose outwardly calm Trevor provides a kind of quiet glue. C. Kelly Leo rivets as sad, passionate Diane. Louise is one of those difficult, prickly women who's also oddly likable, and Karen Slack is wonderful in the role — vulnerable, waspish and very, very funny. Director Chris Leo seems to understand his actors' rhythms and energies perfectly, balancing their work like the conductor of an orchestra to create a strong ensemble, and keeping the balls and flaming batons of this odd comedy swooping through the air in jazzy elliptical arcs.