Long ago, in a time before cellphones and overhead video players, a family road trip meant engaging in conversation, listening to the radio together or possibly sitting in more or less companionable silence for hours on end. A road trip could be a bonding experience, or it could become a contemplation of existential boredom.
“California,” the playwright Trish Harnetiaux’s new show, bravely, if not entirely satisfyingly, ventures into this setup: Not only does it take place entirely in a car, it also ponders the possibility of a multiverse folding into coexisting realities.
Or something. “California” is like a maddening Google Map offering confusing routes from starting point A to destination infinity.
The show follows a family of five traveling the 1,300 miles from Spokane, Wash., to Huntington Beach, Calif. “My dad was confident we could drive it in one shot,” says Lizzie (played by Mallory Portnoy, Gertie in Daniel Fish’s “Oklahoma!”). “No stopping.”
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 seems as if Harnetiaux is setting up a conventionally amusing memory play peppered with nostalgic details: Rob wears guyliner and a Cure T-shirt; the mother (Annie Henk) consults a paper map, before falling asleep underneath it; the father (Pete Simpson), in his plaid shirt, looks like a Trad Dad doll.
“California” is certainly amusing, though not conventional, neither of which comes as a surprise from Harnetiaux. She displayed a flair for the dryly surreal in “Tin Cat Shoes” (2018), which was presented, as this new show is, as part of Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks series (“What the Constitution Means to Me,” “Tumacho”). And her very funny multipart podcast play, “The MS Phoenix Rising,” featured an experimental director trying to stage Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist one-act “The Chairs” aboard a cruise ship.
“California” is a particularly good showcase for non sequiturs and dream logic, as when Mom starts humming nonsense words and Lizzie says, “Mom, that’s not, like, a song.”
“It could be,” her mother replies.
But as with “The Chairs,” which Ionesco described as a “tragic farce,” the show takes on a darker tone as unreliable narrators bend memory and reality into an ominous tangle of confusing chronologies and alternate possibilities. The ground is constantly shifting away from both the characters and the viewers.
Will Davis’s production is best when conjuring an ominous mood constantly overshadowed by death — foretold, remembered, alluded to, imagined. It can be the passing of one of the characters. Or it can be the mass deaths of nuclear Armageddon; the road trippers drive by the Hanford nuclear plant, created as part of the Manhattan Project. And the car, evoked with just chairs and the lighting designer Oona Curley’s atmospheric cues, becomes a claustrophobic enclosure traveling across space as well as time.
Yet these elements do not jell, and it often feels as if Harnetiaux has an unsure grasp on what she is trying to say, or how to say it. Modern expressions, for example, pop up during the period scenes: Dad remembers that some of his college friends “had Big Halloween Energy” and admonishes his kids to “be better.” Whether these are mistakes, a clue that the reminiscing siblings are projecting into the past or just easy laugh lines, the result is distracting. And the show’s very slipperiness turns against itself: Being hard to pinpoint can be allusively mysterious, or it can come across like obfuscation.
Through May 31 at the Wild Project, Manhattan; clubbedthumb.org. Running time: 1 hour 5 minutes.