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Essay

The American Voice: The (Anti) Hero’s Journey

 By Sarah Lunnie, Literary Director

About 10 years ago the writer, performance artist, and preternaturally beguiling weirdo Miranda July wrote a collection of short stories stirringly titled No One Belongs Here More Than You, which I bought and which sits (largely unread, I confess) on my bookshelf like a cipher. Every time I walk past, the slender letters of its name call out to me from the yellow spine, a little riddle, maddeningly open for interpretation. “No one belongs here more than you” — for the lonely, the restless, the malcontent, the outsider, is that assurance meant to be a grace or a curse, an itch or a balm? In Dan LeFranc’s masterful new comedy of anxiety, Rancho Viejo, the question of whether or not we are living as we ought, or as we might, whether other people in other places might be living more nobly, expansively, joyfully, vitally, truthfully, creeps discomfitingly beneath the surface of a succession of backyard barbecues and suburban domestic gatherings, in an affluent Southern California town where nothing much ever seems to happen.

Dan LeFranc’s masterful new comedy of anxiety.

Dan LeFranc, who himself grew up in Southern California, and who frequently spins his play-worlds from the material of his own life, didn’t always think his own experience was worthy territory for dramatic investigation. Looking back over early interviews to write this piece, I’m struck by the persistence with which, again and again, he reflects on a youthful fear that his own origins were not interesting enough to source from. “When I was starting to write plays in college my plays took place in voids, like without a landscape, theatrical voids, maybe because I was into Beckett. I have no idea why but I was almost afraid or I was ashamed by where I came from,” he told The Brooklyn Rail in 2009, on the eve of the premiere of his play Sixty Miles to Silver Lake at Soho Rep. “I did not think that where I came from had any stories worth telling. I thought it was boring. I grew up in the suburbs, I didn’t think anything really exciting had happened to me.” 

Indeed, the landscapes against which many of his dramas play out are decidedly pedestrian: the interior of a car in Sixty Miles to Silver Lake, for instance, or the banal nonspace of a series of chain restaurants in The Big Meal (2011). The characters who inhabit them are steadfastly average; they work unremarkable jobs and live unremarkable lives. But refracted through the lens of LeFranc’s theatrical imagination, the quotidian takes on a grandeur of scale, and a near-mythic proportion, if only fleetingly. He bends form and dilates and contracts theatrical time to make visible precisely that which is just in front of us, but which is easy to miss. 

Dan LeFranc is known and beloved as a formal inventor, skilled at creating idiosyncratic shapes to support the stories he wants to tell. Sometimes that means playing with time, as in Sixty Miles to Silver Lake, in which what first appears to consist of one father-son drive from Orange County to Los Angeles slyly reveals itself to be scores of them, a theatrical fever-dream spanning years of charged trips between divorced parents’ homes; or in The Big Meal, where, in an act of dazzling, dizzying dramatic virtuosity, Dan follows generations of a family through the panorama of their lives through a succession of American casual dining repasts. Elsewhere, he finds gleefully expressionistic modes in which to render lived experience not as it is, but as it feels. In Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright (2013) — whose roots lie, like Dan’s earlier Origin Story, in the muscular, dynamic dramaturgy of the comic book — he tells the story of tweenaged Bradley Boatright’s quest to thwart the single dads who would date his divorced mom, enact vengeance on an evil superintendent, and escape the trappings of a place he finds oppressive. Dan uses a heightened theatrical vernacular to tell a familiar tale (working-class child of divorce dreams of perfecting, or escaping, circumstances over which he has no control) in an unfamiliar way, lending potent expression to Bradley’s vulnerability and need in ways that are both unexpected and wildly, appealingly theatrical.

He is also known for his linguistic insouciance, his relish for the musicality of vernacular speech. If you’ve read a Dan LeFranc play on paper, you know his particular delight in the potential of the page itself; in Rancho Viejo, as in The Big Meal, the dialogue is laid out in a series of columns, text tumbling down the page, a format that allows him to score the rhythms and interruptions of his characters’ speech like music (and which often requires that the scripts be printed on legal-sized paper). But where, in The Big Meal, Dan deploys this notation to capture the breakneck pace at which lived life unspools across generations, in Rancho Viejo, he uses it to zoom in close on the sometimes maddening gradualness of daily life, the way conversations loop and repeat, meander unaccountably, or stall altogether — the awkwardness of being a person. If the play’s deliberately slow dramatic metabolism can, in forward motion, seem to suggest a looseness of structure, one of its greatest pleasures is the dawning revelation of how ingeniously that uncanny patience supports a carefully shaped dramatic machine. Dan has subtitled Rancho Viejo “a suburban sprawl,” a fitting description for the form he’s crafted to tell this story, and one that mirrors the landscape of the place itself.

In its poker-faced tragicomedy, its hilarious, embarrassing, ennobling, indicting commitment to portraying its characters truthfully, the play reminds me of Chekhov. Pete, Mary, and the other characters who people this affluent, well-manicured, lonely community, are rendered by Dan with equal parts brutality and tenderness, and come to seem at once pathetic and lovely, miserable and resigned to their lot, surrounded by blind spots but occasionally gifted (or beset?) with flashes of insight. To the extent that it’s a comedy, they aren’t necessarily in on the joke; but what gives the landscape of Rancho Viejo texture is the variance of their temperaments in the face of the small scope of their lives, from unexamined satisfaction, to merry complacence, to bombastic delusion, to quiet existential unease, to willful avoidance of the issue. Much of the action of the play arises from Pete’s dogged, unaccountable curiosity about the marital problems of someone else’s kids. Having no business of his own, Pete is looking for someone else’s to mind.

Dan LeFranc’s anthology reveals an abiding interest in quest stories, the hero’s journey. In the past, he’s often grafted the form onto narratives of adolescence, stories tied up in the experience of being a child and encountering the fallibility of one’s parents, their limits and weakness. Here, he aims his gaze not at teenagers but at retirees, affluent baby boomers puttering their way through the existential minefield of their not-quite-yet-twilight years. In clocking this shift in focus, from the stubborn heroic insistence of youth on its own hardiness to the encroaching flabbiness of middle age, one sees that — of course — the anxieties that assail these times of life are different. The anxieties of youth are anxieties of power, of agency. The anxieties of middle age are anxieties of meaning. 

When asked, in a Berkeley Rep Magazine interview anticipating the opening of Troublemaker several years ago, to think through if and how his fascination with quest narratives informed that play, Dan said, “Oh, I think it’s the most Hero’s journey-tastic play I’ve ever written. It follows a particular kind of narrative that we see a lot in film, we see a lot in television, and we do see in plays, but I don’t think it’s as overt as it is in film. We know it very well from The Odyssey, Lord of the Rings, StarWars, and TheGodfather. You take a person, you turn their world upside down, and they have to go through a series of struggles that change their worldview. They get their ass kicked, they get knocked down, and then they’re at the moment where they have to choose, ‘Am I going to try to return to what my life was like before, or am I going to change?’” Without saying too much and spoiling the particular sly pleasures and provocations of Dan’s latest play, I invite you to consider Rancho Viejo, too, as a kind of hero’s journey — albeit of a very different sort.