Better Places to Go

Rated 3.0 There is a lot going on in a small-town, run-down diner in the spot of nowhere known as Grand Island, Neb. This sad diner has a tired Mexican motif and a strategically placed sign on the wall clock proclaiming the time piece is out of order—apropos for a place where time has stopped and everyone wants to flee.

The general theme of local playwright David-Matthew Barnes’ newest offering, Better Places to Go, now making its world premiere at the California Stage, is being stuck—whether physically, mentally or emotionally. There are mounds of angst, animosity and anger served up in this diner, delivered by a tired wait staff as well as a strange parade of pathetic patrons.

Everyone is awaiting an impending storm looming in the distance, though the storm is a metaphor for whatever disaster is awaiting each sad case. Rosie, the queen bee of the diner, is a waitress touting a major maniacal ’tude who wants to murder her alien-loving grandmother, Lucille. Busboy Ricardo is dealing with his suicidal lover Derek, while delusional Judy awaits the return of her one-night-stand trucker man. And Nathan is a psychopath two-timing on his emotionally battered wife, Britney.

Also crossing the diner’s threshold is wayward bride-to-be Candace, who learns her maid of honor, Maxine, made it with her groom. And a 15-year-old pregnant runaway named Linda searches for a calm port in the storm.

It’s exhausting just listing the characters, much less trying to relay a short synopsis of their comings and goings. There are moments that are emotionally connecting, especially when the characters deliver their sad stories in lone, lamenting monologues under a spotlight. Special nods go to Tara Henry as Rosie, Logan Hesse as Derek, Jamie Lynn Kale as Linda and Susan Madden as Lucille.

However, despite the individual moments, there is too little logical interaction between characters. In addition, because of the constant shift of tone from intense to absurd, funny to sad, over-the-top to quietly reflective, this drama/comedy feels disjointed.

It’s unfortunate that Barnes hasn’t quite figured out what tenor to deliver. Though the characters and their lives are compelling, some acting moments memorable and the dialogue sharp, the results are a smorgasbord rather than an integrated meal. But Barnes does have a workable framework, quirky characters and witty banters, so some tweaks at the back burner are all that’s needed to make this diner drama ready for delivery. —Patti Roberts

Better Places to Go; 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday; $10. DNPAC Productions at California Stage, 1723 25th Street, (916) 451-5822. Through April 12.