Lizzie, who is 13 at the time of the trip, is flanked by 14-year-old Tucker (Ethan Dubin) and 17-year-old Rob (Jordan Bellow) in the back seat. The siblings take turns commenting on the action, and at first it looks like Harnetiaux is setting up a conventionally amusing memory game with nostalgic details: Rob is wearing a guyliner and a Cure T-shirt; the mother (Annie Henk) consults a paper map before falling asleep under it; the father (Pete Simpson), in his plaid shirt, looks like a Trad Dad doll.
“California” is certainly funny, if not conventional, and neither comes as a surprise from Harnetiaux. She showed a flair for the dry surreal in “Tin Cat Shoes” (2018), which was presented, as is this new show, as part of Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks series (“What the Constitution Means to Me”, “Tumacho”) . And in her very funny multi-part podcast game, “The MS Phoenix Rising,” an experimental director tried to stage Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist one-act play “The Chairs” aboard a cruise ship.
“California” is a particularly good showcase for non-sequiturs and dream logic, like when Mommy starts humming nonsense words and Lizzie says, “Mom, that’s no song.†
“It could be,” her mother replies.
But like “The Chairs,” which Ionesco described as a “tragic farce,” the show takes on a darker tone as dodgy narrators bend memory and reality into an ominous jumble of confusing chronologies and alternate possibilities. The ground is constantly shifting away from both the characters and the viewers.
Will Davis’ production is best when it evokes an ominous mood that is constantly overshadowed by death – foretold, remembered, alluded to, imagined. It could be the death of one of the characters. Or it could be the mass deaths of nuclear Armageddon; the road trippers drive past the Hanford Nuclear Power Plant, created as part of the Manhattan Project. And the car, evoked with only seats and the mood elements of the lighting designer Oona Curley, becomes a claustrophobic enclosure that travels through both space and time.