Gianni Downs’s apropos “split screen” set for Carla Ching’s new play Nomad Motel – confidently directed here by Los Angeles-based director Bart DeLorenzo – adeptly and precisely encapsulates both its form and content. On stage right, occupying a little over half of the width of the stage, is the large living room/kitchen of an upscale contemporary suburban home, with dove-grey walls, laminate wood floors, a granite kitchen countertop, and four large skylights in a cathedral ceiling. It’s a space strangely devoid of furniture, however: the room is nearly empty save for a handful of mismatched chairs, a sleeping bag on the floor, and a desk in one corner, loaded with electronic equipment and surrounded by electric guitars and speakers. Stage left is a dingy motel room, with a low ceiling, stained mustard-colored walls, and a mottled linoleum floor. Here, the space is so crammed with personal items – most of them stacked in plastic tubs – that there is hardly space to move.
On stage, only a thin wall separates these two otherwise diametrically opposed spaces, just as, in the world of the play, the characters who occupy them experience widely different yet intersecting trajectories. The occupant of the spare but expensive home is Mason (Christopher Larkin), a 17-year-old from China living alone in Southern California; his wealthy widowed father James (Nelson Lee) has “parachuted” Mason alone into the US in order to send him to high school so that he can eventually gain admittance to an Ivy League college. On the other side of the “shared” wall is Alix (Katie Lynn Esswein), also 17, who is living motel room to motel room with her mother Fiona (Lisa Velten Smith) and two younger brothers. Not too long ago, this family lived in a house that was probably very much like Mason’s, but divorce and a rough economy has rendered them homeless and in financially desperate straits. Alix, too, has dreams of going to an elite university – she has her sights set on studying landscape architecture at Cooper Union – but her unstable family situation makes it tough for her to attend school regularly, let alone get good grades.
These two teens are thrown together for a school project – something to do with Shakespeare – and not only do parallels between their lives become evident, but their crises also start to converge. At play’s beginning, both have been shoved prematurely into adult independence: Mason lives alone, with virtually no supervision, and has to cope both with the practicalities of life and with loneliness, while Alix must support her family both financially and emotionally, as Fiona helplessly flails about looking for a way out of their predicament. By intermission, both of these teens believe they’ve been abandoned by their parents: James has fallen off the radar and stopped calling or sending money, and Fiona has parked her sons with a friend and moved a few hours away to take a job, leaving Alix to beg for shelter from her ex-boyfriend, Oscar (Shahine Ezell), who, it turns out, has himself been kicked out of foster care and is now squatting in an abandoned convenience store.
Mason and Alix eventually join forces and become an odd couple of sorts – conveniently, each has something the other needs (Mason has a roof over his head, stuff to sell to generate income, and can help Alix bring up her GPA; Alix can cook and knows how to write a killer college essay) – and, predictably enough, their friendship eventually morphs into a romance, one that is – also predictably enough – interrupted by the sudden reappearance of James. In the play’s final moments, a wounded bird that Mason sets free serves as a neon-lit metaphor for both Alix and Mason’s journey from damaged to whole: Mason finds the courage to break free of his father’s expectations and pursue his dream of becoming a composer, and Alix comes to have faith in her own potential and not give up on her ambitions.
I wanted to enjoy this play much more than I did, primarily because the situation of its two primary characters is both unusual and compelling. But Ching, who has done a good deal of writing for television, seems to have been unable to shed the conventions of the small screen here, and in both form and style Nomad Motel feels more like episodic television than theater. Structurally, the play depends a great deal on bouncing from one location to another in a manner that often feels sluggish and awkward. In particular, the final series of scenes, in which two conversations are happening simultaneously – one downstairs in the living room and the other upstairs in a bedroom – seem written for the quick cut of the camera rather than for the live stage, where one pair of silent actors are visibly not doing anything while the other pair is talking. Stylistically, the play aims for realism, but it’s the realism of a TV sitcom, in which we’re asked to overlook a whole host of rank implausibilities. Some of these implausible moments belong to the script itself: for example, at one point Fiona, who has been hastily packing up her family’s belongings so that she can vacate the motel room before the manager duns her for the rent, insists that Alix take the car keys, and then grabs just two of the many boxes lying about and rushes out the door, apparently never to return. How is she transporting the boxes, if she has just given her daughter the car? And why would she leave behind all of her other belongings? Other implausibilities are exacerbated by the production’s design choices, as when Alix – who is possessed of neither a sewing machine nor, as far as we are told, mad drapery skills – somehow ingeniously fashions a skirt, complete with elastic and shirring at the top, out of one of Mason’s shirts (likewise, a skirt she had earlier rigged out of Oscar’s old hoodie appeared equally impossible, given her circumstances).
In other words, in both play and production the maker’s hand is very much in evidence, making much of the plot and action seem overly contrived, particularly as the parallels between Mason and Alix, and between James and Fiona, start to line up as if on either side of a split screen themselves. As a result, despite the fact that the characters’ situations are based in fascinating and stage-worthy real-life predicaments, the play feels too neatly wrought to adequately capture their messy and unpredictable reality.