Downward mobility meets cultural clash in Nomad Motel, receiving its New York premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2. Playwright Carla Ching picks up the mantle of writers chronicling life on the ragged edge of California’s working class, cleaving to it the emerging trend of “parachute kids” who come to the United States from Asia to access better educational opportunities. Yet she squanders the promising premise offered in this unusual juxtaposition by turning her two-act drama into a compendium of clichés, with hardly an authentic moment to be found.
The play opens with characters who, at least on the surface, should be fascinating. Alix (Molly Griggs) and her family—mom Fiona (an underutilized Samantha Mathis) and two unseen little brothers—once occupied a solidly middle-class position in the vast suburban sprawl outside Los Angeles, but financial exigencies and familial erosion have forced them out of their home and into the series of motel rooms that give the work its title. (Scenic designer Yu-Hsuan Chen furnishes a multipurpose unit set that looks too sleek for the level of desperation portrayed.) Housing insecurity and its accompanying social woes force seventeen-year-old Alix to grow up quickly, as she holds down waitressing jobs and neglects school to keep cash flowing into the family coffer, while her mother mostly pines over the lost homestead (built by Grandpa with his own two hands—cliché alert!).
Somewhere on the other side of the tracks, Mason (Christopher Larkin) inhabits a sprawling but empty suburban house, where he spends the majority of his time—and the money sent by his mysterious father, James (Andrew Pang)—playing guitar in the basement. James periodically calls from Hong Kong to check in, imploring the boy to think about his future MBA even though he hasn’t yet finished high school. Music is Mason’s true love, but his father deems it impractical, even as his own career (revealed by Ching in dribs and drabs) doesn’t conform to respectable standards.
In both cases, Ching trades in familiar tropes: the child-as-parent role reversal for Alix and Fiona, and the financially generous but emotionally distant father-son relationship for Mason and James. Neither of the four central characters take on much dimensionality, even as Ching throws ever more hardships their way: Mason wastes money meant for food and utilities on electronic equipment; Alix continues a problematic entanglement with her ex-boyfriend Oscar (a very good Ian Duff, making the most of an underdeveloped role); Fiona pursues questionable avenues to regain her place in society; and James grows careless in the execution of his dangerous line of work.
Each storyline holds interesting potential, but the writing either resolves them too quickly and without much spark, or keeps them center-stage long after they’ve hit a dramatic wall. The fraught relationship between Alix and Oscar, for example, spins its wheels interminably throughout the second act, before defusing with an attenuated fizzle.
The similar-yet-different backgrounds shared by Alix and Mason should provoke some chemistry when the plot throws them together to work on a school project. These are lost young people grasping hard for something to hold on to—a device that, while somewhat hoary, can still be effective. But their budding romance more often resembles an after-school special, compounded by an overworked metaphor involving an injured bird that Mason scrupulously nurses back to health. The sparrow isn’t the only creature on stage with a broken wing, Ching takes pains to continually remind the audience, in another narrative device that peters out in terms of effectiveness long before it’s resolved.
More nuanced performances could have gone a long way in overcoming the play’s artifice, but neither Griggs nor Larkin suggests the charm or charisma needed for their mammoth roles. Griggs sinks into a cynical, disaffected pose that rarely lifts, whether Alix is meant to be sad, angry, hopeless, optimistic, or scared. She also does little to imply teenage vulnerability; she looks and sounds old enough to convincingly play her character’s mother.
By contrast, Larkin remains largely affectless, even as he fights the expectations foisted upon him by his father. We hear about his passion for music, but we rarely see it, even as he competently performs original music composed for the character by Emily Gardner Xu Hall and Enrico de Trizio. (The music itself becomes a kind of treacly soundtrack that underscores character motivation a little too obviously throughout.)
Unlike other writers who have taken the suburban sprawl of California as their subject, Ching largely neglects to ground her story in a sense of place. Alix regularly voices a desire to escape to New York, but we hardly sense the hardscrabble world she longs to leave behind. Director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar does little to provoke a feel for the setting in his staging, and the characters seem like they could have originated anywhere.
Both Ching and Iskandar do better in suggesting the nightlife of Hong Kong and Tokyo, presented in short bursts that involve James’s shady business dealings, with effectively moody lighting (by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew) and an unsettling soundscape, but those scenes are merely an adjunct to the central story.
Throughout the play—which feels interminably long at barely two hours—I kept hoping for a pivot to something that felt authentically lived-in and recognizable, because the basic bones of Ching’s drama are strong and compelling. That pivot never comes, and in the last few scenes, the show spins out in so many disparate and desperate directions it becomes hard to keep track. Resolution might not be guaranteed in life, but it goes a long way in the theater. But like the characters it portrays, Nomad Motel drifts discouragingly from one unstable situation to the next.