WATERTOWN — Though they’re supposedly close friends, the three couples in Steven Dietz’s “Rancho Mirage’’ really get on one another’s nerves. And the play they’re in is likely to get on yours.
This exasperating new work, which manages to feel both overstuffed and hollow, is about suburban discontent and marital deceit and the dreams we abandon along the way to middle age and the illusions we hide behind once we get there (signaled by that portentous title).
These are not fresh notions, and they don’t get any fresher over the course of a bibulous evening in “Rancho Mirage,’’ as one revelation leads to another, and then another, and still another. Even as adroit a director as Robert Walsh, who is at the helm for the New Repertory Theatre production of Dietz’s play, can’t finesse his way around its flaws. The excesses on display confirm the wisdom of that maxim about less being more.
At New Rep, one of several theaters presenting “Rancho Mirage’’ in a “rolling world premiere,’’ Walsh has enlisted an able cast, and they’re able to stay afloat for a while. But they’re ultimately swamped by a play that defines its 40-something characters primarily by their grievances and that, though billed as a dark comedy, never really settles on a tone.
That’s not to say Dietz isn’t capable of clever writing. He is. The playwright delivers a few pungent one-liners and a couple of diverting scenes of social combat in “Rancho Mirage,’’ which unfolds at a dinner party in a sumptuous home located in a gated community named, you guessed it, Rancho Mirage.
But Dietz lingers too often in the soapy waters of melodrama, trying to make a Big Statement, or series of Statements. He explored the emotional territory of midlife “what if?’’ much more artfully, poignantly, and persuasively in “Shooting Star,’’ his drama about the airport reunion of long-ago lovers, produced at Trinity Repertory Company in fall 2009.
As Nick (Lewis D. Wheeler) and Diane (Tamara Hickey) prepare to host their closest friends in their sleek abode (the set is by John Howell Hood), they are burdened with a heavy secret: They’re bankrupt. And not just on paper. In fact, they’re now so tapped out they can’t even pay the baby sitter.
But after the gathering gets underway and much, much wine has been consumed, it becomes clear that Nick and Diane are not the only ones whose circumstances are more complicated than their polished surfaces would suggest. Also coping with personal upheaval of various kinds are Charlie (John Kooi) and Pam (Cate Damon), as well as Trevor (Robert Pemberton, in fine form) and Louise (an enjoyably insouciant Abigail Killeen).
Pretty soon, the sunset-colored stage of the Charles Mosesian Theater is awash in spilled secrets. Hidden histories are revealed. Fissures in seemingly solid relationships are exposed. Stormy speeches of either the finger-pointing or soul-baring variety are declaimed. One way or another, true feelings claw their way to the surface.
And yet this orgy of truth-telling remains curiously uninvolving. When we watch a production of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,’’ we’re riveted by the sheer contest of wills, aware that George and Martha will scorch every available inch of earth, will battle almost literally to the death, so determined are they to win. Even with Yasmina Reza’s overrated “God of Carnage,’’ we are drawn in by the spectacle of two initially polite couples descending to some raw, primal core.
“Rancho Mirage’’ lacks that aura of danger, that sense of high stakes, or, really, much sense that meaningful consequences will flow from all these truths. The questions Dietz’s characters ask themselves and one another feel generic, and this sextet is not especially plausible as close friends — would the nebbishy Charlie and Pam really be so tight with the four sardonic cosmopolitans? — so the fraying of the ties that bind them never seems like that big a deal.
With determination and a whiff of desperation, Dietz throws a lot at the wall — religion, international adoptions, the family pain of Alzheimer’s, the emptiness of American materialism, our inability to really know our friends or even ourselves — but very little of it sticks. When everyone onstage has finally had their say, and the ending to this long, long evening arrives, it seems as contrived as most of what came before it.