Have you ever seen the movie Color of Night? Starring Bruce Willis prior to his Pulp Fiction-fueled career renaissance and co-starring an almost always-naked Jane March (as well as decidedly more clothed ’90s perennials Lesley Ann Warren, Scott Bakula, Brad Dourif, Lance Henriksen and Ruben Blades), Color of Night is, depending on who you ask, either a campy cinematic gem or an unmitigated celluloid disaster. That it is a blatant Basic Instinct knockoff and includes one of the most outlandish plot twists you’re likely to come across this side of The Sixth Sense, however, cannot be debated.
The twist in Color of Night is all about mistaken identity. The identity in question is not mistaken simply due to a clever disguise. It is made possible only with the aid of the willful, albeit subconscious, collusion of those being deceived. Say what you will about the movie as a whole, but this element of it touches on a universal truth of human behavior and psychology. People present only parts of themselves to the world, and the world includes those nearest and dearest to us.
Denver native and prolific playwright Steven Dietz tackles this phenomenon with abundant humor in his latest world premiere, Rancho Mirage. I’d be interested to hear the stories from Dietz’s own life that germinated into this play. I bet they’re doozies. After all, it takes a strong person to not only recognize that we keep secrets — often Mt. Everest-sized secrets — from our wives, husbands, parents, children and best friends, but also to take that uncomfortable knowledge and spin it into the kind of play that keeps you laughing out the door then makes you think … hard … for the rest of the night.
Set in the titular — and arguably way too on-the-nose — suburban enclave, Rancho Mirage finds a group of friends gathering to enjoy one of their regular dinner parties full of good-natured repartee and copious amounts of wine. It is obvious that the three couples in the group have known one another for many years. The surprise comes when one secret after another spills out. The unexpected pleasure follows when the play handles these revelations in a recognizably realistic way rather than giving in to melodrama or cutesy parable-comedy.
The hosts of the evening are Diane and Nick Dahner (C. Kelly Leo and Bill Hahn). They are the most conventionally attractive of the group, and that fact combined with the opulence of their swanky spread make them the de facto alpha dogs. The runner-up couple, Trevor Neese and Louise Parker-Neese (David Russell and Karen Slack), fill their second-place roles with abundant humor and quirkiness. She is blunt and crass and hilarious in the process, and he has recently taken up sewing. The final dyad, that in many ways serves as the butt of the other four’s jokes, is made up of overtly religious Charlie Caldwell (Erik Sandvold) and his often-befuddled wife, Pam (Emily Paton Davies).
At first, all seems both peachy and keen for these upper-middle-class mensches. Their straight, white teeth gleam and smile below expensive haircuts and above expensive clothes as they sip $30 bottles of wine seated on custom furniture cloistered safely behind the walls of a gated community. If it weren’t for their easy humanity (a triumph more for the all-star cast than for the playwright), you could begin to hate these yuppies before the first cork is pulled. And with every new secret that is revealed, some softly, some louder than bombs, the humanity comes more sharply into focus — both theirs and ours.
You see, it’s all a mirage. (Get it? It was in the title all along!) All the stability, all the good-natured nonchalance and all the carefree camaraderie are a quickly cracking veneer. Rather than turn into some sort of OA (that’s “old adult”) version of The Hunger Games with the three couples tearing each other apart for mortgage security and the last glass of merlot, Rancho Mirage permits its characters to be living, breathing, deeply flawed people. No one is screwing anyone else’s spouse, and no one has stolen large amounts of money, so all sins may be forgiven, and the play can meander along in varying degrees of focus and without any real sense of finality. Just like real life.
Rancho Mirage is presented by the Curious Theatre Company (1080 Acoma St., Denver) through Dec. 7. Tickets are $18-$44. For tickets or information, visit www.curioustheatre.org or call 303-623-0524.