By Carla Ching; Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar
Produced by Atlantic Theater Company
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 7.23.19
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street
by Asya Gorovits on 6.3.19
Christopher Larkin and Molly Griggs in Nomad Motel. Photo by Ahron R. Foster.
BOTTOM LINE: Life is a struggle when you are a teenager with a dysfunctional single parent, but Nomad Motel assures us that as long as you have a friend who pushes you to follow your dream, all is not lost.
Nomad Motel, a play by Carla Ching that just opened at Atlantic Stage 2, takes the audience on a journey to the state of mind that comes with being seventeen, when every other minute you think you might explode, sometimes from joy but mostly from pain. Even if you've never had the experience of sleeping on a concrete floor in an abandoned convenience store somewhere in Orange County, California, the feeling of having no firm ground to stand on and a persistent itch to follow your dream might seem familiar. This is what makes the characters of Nomad Motel so relatable.
Alix (Molly Griggs) and Mason (Christopher Larkin) don’t have much in common except for a school assignment on Shakespeare and a burning desire to break away from their parents and the lifestyles to which they are bound. Alix’s mother, Fiona (Samantha Mathis) is struggling with her acting career, losing the family house and raising three kids in a motel room. This leaves no time for dealing with her daughter’s problems, and although Fiona acts like Alix’s best girlfriend, she fails as a mother in her daughter’s eyes. James (Andrew Pang), Mason’s widowed father, practices a contrasting parenting style. Although he is far away in Hong Kong, he controls every aspect of Mason’s life, from what his son eats to what career he should pursue. This character remains a mystery, partly due to the secretive nature of his occupation (possibly related to the mafia), but also because of a lack of visual and narrative clues. Despite this, we do know that James has a heavy influence on his son—cleverly illustrated by a video call scene with the father’s face blown out on a backdrop of vertical blinds.
With different cultural and economic backgrounds and nearly opposite personalities, feisty Alix and timid Mason form a tender friendship though nursing an injured bird. Instead of marinating in their own problems, they choose to help each other out, giving each other encouragement to follow their respective dreams. Mason's dream is to be a professional musician (his father insists he study business); Alix’s ambition is to study architecture in New York. For a moment she is convinced by her ex-boyfriend, Oscar (Ian Duff), that she would be just fine without college and they can just run away to New York together. But the trap door in this plan soon reveals itself and Alix has nobody to go to but Mason. Nomad Motel wins over the audience with its occasionally naïve frankness and obvious metaphors, like the injured bird, and a full-on sword fight literally illustrating the father-son relationship dynamic. But further topics, like racial injustice, get thrown in the bag of misfortunes without getting sufficient development.
The stage design by Yu-Hsuan Chen consists of an empty eggshell-colored room that is easily transformed into a motel room, abandoned convenience store (Oscar’s squat) or Mason’s empty living room. Since nearly all of Alix’s possessions fit in a couple of milk crates and a duffel bag, her moving in and out of places allows for easy transitions. Mason’s “cave” is located beneath the stage and consists of a row of cells stuffed with random furniture and objects. But why keep all these chairs tucked away and have an empty living room? This design inconsistency is representative of the discrepancy in Mason’s background. A Chinese mafia prince living under the assumed identity in an empty house stuffed with expensive liquor? This sounds like an ill-fitting fantasy. If anything, it robs the story of realism and takes away from the play's main point: the difficulty of finding your way in life and the empowerment that comes through true friendship.
(Nomad Motel plays at Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street, through June 23, 2019. The running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 and 7:30. Tickets are $55 ($40 for partial obstructed view) and are available at atlantictheater.org or by calling 866-811-4111.)
Nomad Motel is by Carla Ching. Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar. Set Design by Yu-Hsuan Chen. Lighting Design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew. Sound Design and Original Compositions by Emily Gardner Xu Hall. Costume Design by Loren Shaw. Fight Direction by Ryan-James Hatanaka.
The cast is Ian Duff, Molly Griggs, Christopher Larkin, Samantha Mathis, and Andrew Pang.