A baby bird with a broken wing that needs nursing in order to fly is among the loudly clanging symbols in Carla Ching’s earnest but ungainly Nomad Motel, at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2.
In Orange County, California, Alix (Molly Griggs) and Mason (Christopher Larkin) are high-school seniors who seemingly have nothing in common brought together by a homework assignment. For each, it turns out, home is anything but ideal. Alix moves from one dumpy motel to another and looks after her younger brothers instead of her irresponsible mother, Fiona (Samantha Mathis). Mason lives alone in a house. That’s where his controlling father, James (Andrew Pang), left him before departing the country for a mysterious job in Hong Kong.
Both teens, forced to fend for themselves, prove resilient. That’s one of the interesting aspects of the drama, which makes its New York debut following earlier productions in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Missouri. Alix and Mason are straight-A students whose dreams are informed by hardships. She wants to study architecture and build public spaces that feel like home. Mason wants to create and teach music, which has been therapeutic. But there are roadblocks – money for her and a father who insists his son study economics for him.
Circumstances take dire turns when Fiona flees, leaving the boys with an acquaintance, and James goes off the grid. Alix seeks help from her ex Oscar (Ian Duff), but realizes she and Mason could be each other’s lifelines – and possibly more.
Ching's subject and characters are intriguing, but her script is uneven. There are moments of grounded poignancy, as when Alix asks Mason, “Why weren’t you ruined by it all?” But dialogue also suffers from overstatement and being too on-the-nose, as when James chides his son, “You bring home birds, you bring home girls, these hopeless broken things.” The less said about a father-and-son sword fight the better.
Through the show's up and downs, the acting is uniformly fine. Director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar keeps scenes moving efficiently as they switch back and forth between Alix’s crummy squats and Mason’s house. An empty stage and an area below it are used to evoke the various locations.
The play avoids notions of villains and victims. “No one tells you it’s this hard,” says Fiona, acknowledging she’s no mother of the year. “There’s no way to be good at it.” The kids aren’t all right, and the same goes for the parents. And while the final scene, which recalls The Graduate, isn’t exactly persuasive, Nomad Motel leaves a small vacancy for hope.