Review of Nomad Motel at Atlantic Theater Company

  • Our critic's rating:
    June 3, 2019
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    James (Andrew Pang) is a widower and international man of mystery. He roams the streets of Hong Kong and Tokyo sporting large tattoos and accumulating various flesh wounds. Fiona (Samantha Mathis) is a failed actress who married poorly. She roams the streets of Los Angeles and Disneyland in a constant skid of compromises. Unfortunately though, James and Fiona are on the outskirts of Carla Ching’s Nomad Motel, now playing Atlantic Theater Company's Atlantic Stage 2. This work’s primary focus is on the very responsible offspring of these wild characters. Fiona’s daughter, Alix (Molly Griggs), is worried about getting into college and dreams of being a landscape architect. James’s son, Mason (Christopher Larkin), wants to be a musician and enjoys fencing. Bonnie and Clyde they are not, yet Ching attempts to shape them into a pair of damaged heroes who find safety in each other’s arms.

    Having lost their home, Alix lives in a motel room, struggling to graduate high school while holding down a waitressing job, and Fiona does whatever she can to earn a buck. Alix also has a pair of little brothers. We know this because they are mentioned in passing numerous times. But with little more than one offstage murmur, and no believable emotional connection expressed by mother or daughter, the boys seem merely an untethered plot device meant to explain Fiona’s financial urgency. Mason, a classmate and eventual boyfriend of Alix, has it a bit better. He lives alone in a nearby house that is paid for by James, who Skypes in from overseas when not disappearing into the Asian underworld. And lest we forget the fragility of the two teens, Ching bestows upon Mason the most tired of metaphors, a wounded bird, unable to fly till nursed back to health. When it finally does soar, so, of course, do Alix and Mason. That is, if feverishly running in place till the lights dim, as staged by director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, counts as freedom.

    Alix’s complicated relationships are pivotal, but Griggs’s mostly lifeless performance puts a drag on the proceedings. With arms often listless and eyes focused somewhere in the distance, her line readings sound very much like line readings. Mathis brings a quirky energy to Fiona but rarely has a scene long enough to allow her to flower. As Mason, Larkin is nerdy, needy and sympathetic, though often saddled with that robotic robin, hidden under a hankie, or involved in strange interludes with Pang, who seems to be in an exotic spy film while everyone else is in a domestic drama. Also in the mix is Ian Duff as Oscar, a romantic competitor for Alix’s attention. Duff seems older than the 17-year-old he is cast as, but brings a refreshing sensitivity to the role of a rejected suitor.

    Both Oscar and Mason suffer abuse from the police in separate offstage skirmishes that Ching brings up then summarily drops, further obscuring the playwright’s message. Meanwhile, the sparse, single set by Yu-Hsuan Chen is called upon to represent two different motel rooms, Mason’s house and an abandoned convenience store, but looks like none of the above. It seems that behind every door in this production, there is room for improvement.

    (Photo by Ahron R. Foster)

    "A drama about who and what make a home, Carla Ching’s Nomad Motel, at Atlantic Stage 2, has a hard time settling down. It’s about Alix, a high school senior neglected by her mother. And it’s about Mason, a classmate deserted by his father. And it’s maybe about their parents, too. Scrappy, peripatetic, now and then poignant, Nomad Motel wants to hit you where you live. Sometimes it shows up at the wrong address."
    Alexis Soloski for New York Times