On stage, dinner parties usually tend toward farce. But for playwright Steven Dietz, that was only the beginning.
“When I started ‘Rancho Mirage,’ it was pleasantly funny,” says Dietz, whose dark comedy starts previews at New Repertory Theatre in Watertown Saturday as part of a “'rolling world premiere” by the National New Play Network. “But that wasn’t quite right. It took a while for me to get underneath and find the beating heart of these people.”
Set in the fictional suburb of Rancho Mirage, the play focuses on three couples, all longtime friends, who have gathered at one couple’s home for dinner. The location, says Dietz, is disarmingly familiar, and the friends’ banter is light and funny until it turns darker, deeper, and surprisingly heartfelt. The title, he says, offers a hint of the tension between the idealistic image people try to project and the reality that lies underneath.
“When my teenage daughter asked me what this play was about,” Dietz says, “I told her, ‘Imagine you got together with all your friends, but this time you decided you’d tell each other the truth.’ That got her attention.”
No matter how comfortable the friends in “Rancho Mirage” seem with each other, all of the couples have a secret they’re not willing to share with the group. At one level, the issues revolve around money, children, and adultery, but what makes the story compelling is Dietz’s ability to continue to turn the story inward, from the couples to the individuals within each marriage, and ultimately, to the kind of protective shells everyone wears to keep up appearances.
“I’m fascinated by how we shine up the veneer of our lives,” says Dietz, who spoke by phone from Austin, Texas, where he teaches playwriting. “We protect that veneer even in front of our friends, the people we think we’re honest with.”
With nearly three dozen published plays to his credit, Dietz, 55, is considered one of the country’s most prolific writers, with a new play premiering nearly every year. (As part of the New Play Network, “Rancho Mirage” will have premieres in Baltimore, Indianapolis, and Denver, as well as the New Rep in Watertown.) His plays are set everywhere from an airport in middle America (“Shooting Star”) to a bar in Manhattan (“Yankee Tavern”), but he often employs humor to explore themes of secrets and lies that culminate not in one shocking revelation, but a series of gentle twists that bring the audience close to his characters.
“I wish, after all these years, I could sit down and say, ‘This is the pattern to follow to write a play,’ ” he says. “But it never works. There is always the point at which you need to embody the full spectrum of the characters, and it requires a different approach each time.”
For “Rancho Mirage,” Dietz says, “I needed to build characters that could ride big story turns. As I fleshed them out, I was surprised by the secrets within each marriage.”
On Sunday, Dietz will discuss his work at a symposium at the Arsenal Center for the Arts. The free event starts at 4:30 p.m. (RSVP to symposium@new
This fall, Dietz will have two plays running back to back in the Boston area. In addition to the world premiere of “Rancho Mirage,” the Lyric Stage Company is producing his 2008 play, “Becky’s New Car,” opening Nov. 29. Like “Rancho Mirage,” “Becky’s New Car” takes some ordinary characters and shakes up their lives with humor and plot twists.
In this comedy, Becky’s uneventful life is turned upside down when a millionaire arrives to purchase nine expensive cars for his employees from the dealership where she works. Again, Dietz examines what appear to be solid relationships, and then explores one character’s opportunity to live a secret double life.
“I suppose I’m drawn to the idea of the secrets we keep from the people closest to us,” Dietz says, “but when I begin writing each play, it’s a new puzzle box to me. The question is, how much of that puzzle box in any given play do I want to pass on to the audience?”
“Rancho Mirage,” Dietz says, “is made up of little earthquakes that happen inside each of these people when they’re confronted with the truth. Some responses are big and theatrically shameless, and some are really quiet and deep.”
Ultimately, he says that when he goes to the theater, “I love to be amused and astonished, but I also want something that gets me in the gut.”