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.