There is no actual Nomad Motel in Carla Ching’s new, gripping play of the same name, now running at Atlantic Stage 2 on 16th Street. Nonetheless, the ethereal specter of such a place seems to haunt the world of the play. And, considering everything, the lack of a real safe haven suggesting refuge and flight is probably the least worrisome thing missing from the lives of the characters in Ching’s play. More consequential omissions include the almost total lack of parental direction or non-calculating, unconditional love shown towards the play’s pair of late-teenage protagonists, Alix (expertly played with a delicate but gritty tenacity by Milly Griggs) and Mason (a sensitive, perfectly tuned Christopher Larkin). Their respective single parents seem to have far more weighing on their minds and confounding their identities than dealing responsibly with the challenges of child-rearing. It’s a predicament—this incessant effort at resolving your inner demons—that they share with their offspring, but one that is far more attractive when it manifests in the lives of teenagers than in those of their parents.
Yet the play’s authority figures refuse to cede this territory: Alix’s mother, Fiona (a nicely embattled Samantha Mathis) has always seemed to need as much attention and guidance as her daughter, often from her daughter; and Mason’s Hong Kong-born father, James (a commanding Andrew Pang), never hesitates to invoke stark, warrior-laden, macho tropes when crossing swords with his son (literally and figuratively: two sharpened instruments hang on a wall in the house he shares with Mason).
Nomad Motel does feature plenty of makeshift, transitory living spaces: There’s the room at the Sandman Hotel that Fiona, Alix, and her small brothers inhabit because the family, minus Alix’s absent father, can no longer make the payments on their house. Fiona seems on the verge of buying back the house one minute and losing it the next. But mostly she just seems incapable of devising a long-range plan to insure the well-being of her family. There’s the abandoned storefront that Alix’s former lover, Oscar (a piercing Ian Duff), lives in and to which Alix flees when she and her mother finally lose the motel room. And there’s the aforementioned house where Mason lives, often alone, his widowed father away for long periods of time conducting mysterious, nefarious business in order to make his own mortgage payments.
Mason wants nothing more than to abandon the financial career his absent father wants for him so he can pursue a career as a musician. And it’s Mason’s pursuit, along with Alix’s own dreams of an art career, that informs Nomad’s central tension: this pair, who attend the same high school, have little financially and in the way of family to sustain them, even less to build a future on. Yet they seem to find in each other a combined strength that Ching deftly and movingly defines—and mines—in order to propel them and the play forward.
As for the production, Nomad Hotel is efficiently and imaginatively directed (Ed Sylvanus Iskandar) so as to encompass the multiple housing areas. He also winningly shepherds the play’s dual energies: a kind of desperate sense of reality fused with a more poetic or aspirational edge. Loren Shaw’s quick-change costumes allow the characters to successfully inhabit multiple playing areas. And Yu-Hsuan-Chen’s economic set design uses up every inch of the stage, including a long, rectangular area right below it, which at first seemed to be a kind of cramped orchestra pit for Mason, his guitar, and laptop. Later it emerges as his bedroom. If the production, as a whole, seemed at times somewhat constrained by its spatial limitations, the fact that all the characters seemed to be bursting out of their emotional and physical lives seemed to suit the play—and its playing spaces—just fine.
Nomad Motel. By Carla Ching. Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar. Presented by the Atlantic Theater Company (Neil Pepe, Artistic Director; Jeffory Lawson, Managing Director) at Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street. With Ian Duff (Oscar), Molly Griggs (Alix), Christopher Larkin (Mason), Samantha Mathis (Fiona), and Andrew Pang (James). Now playing until June 23rd. Tuesday-Sunday at 7:30pm, Saturday and Sunday at 2:30pm. No performance on Tuesday, June 4. Tickets begin at $55 and can be ordered online at atlantictheater.org, by calling OvationTix at 866-811-4111, or in person at the Linda Gross Theater box office (336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues).