A drama about who and what make a home, Carla Ching’s “Nomad Motel,” at Atlantic Stage 2, has a hard time settling down. It’s about Alix, a high school senior neglected by her mother. And it’s about Mason, a classmate deserted by his father. And it’s maybe about their parents, too. Scrappy, peripatetic, now and then poignant, “Nomad Motel” wants to hit you where you live. Sometimes it shows up at the wrong address.
In Anaheim, Calif., not so far from where Ms. Ching (“Fast Company,” “The Sugar House at the Edge of the Wilderness”) grew up, Alix (Molly Griggs), a tough girl by necessity rather than inclination, trails her flight-risk mother, Fiona (Samantha Mathis), from one seamy motel to the next. An English teacher partners her with Mason (Christopher Larkin), a social anxiety case and undocumented immigrant living alone in a McMansion, while his father, James (Andrew Pang), works as an enforcer for a crime syndicate in Hong Kong. (The set designer Yu-Hsuan Chen conveys these multiple spaces with venetian blinds and neon.)
When life gives these kids a lapful of more and less inexplicable lemons, Alix and Mason move in together. As Ms. Ching’s taste in metaphor is not exactly subtle, they also care for a wounded bird.
Alix plans to study landscape architecture; Mason, to the chagrin of his tiger dad, is a wannabe musician. (Emily Gardner Xu Hall composed the mope rock, which Mr. Larkin loops live.) But it’s hard to chase down your dreams when you keep having to detour to the food pantry. And it’s harder still when your role models play their parts so poorly.
“Maybe some people were never designed to have children,” Alix says, bitterly. “And maybe the biggest favor children of those people can do is to leave them.” But for these teenagers, wanting independence and actually getting it are very different propositions.
The director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar minimizes his showboating instincts — and then maximizes them in a late-breaking sword fight — mostly giving the actors space to work, with varying success. Ms. Griggs’ plays a lot of her scenes the same, emphasizing Alix’s brittle carapace, not her tender interior. And Mr. Larkin, floppy-haired and sweetly forlorn, clearly hasn’t been a teenager for more than a decade.
The play that surrounds them can seem untidy, like a suitcase that will barely shut. Supporting characters end up underserved, like Ian Duff’s Oscar, a foster kid now squatting in a shuttered convenience store. And plot holes gape. Why is Mason in Anaheim, anyway? What happened to Alix’s dad? Why do people keep mentioning Andrew Bird?
But you’ll care for these characters, because Ms. Ching writes roles that actors enjoy playing, probably because she works from a place of genuine curiosity about who we are and how we got to be that way.
And if the play feels unfinished — the ending could just as well begin a new scene, a new play — maybe it’s because she knows that the business of growing up can feel that way, too. For Alix and Mason, for her mom and his dad, for a lot of us in the audience, too. Making a home — in the world, in ourselves — is the work of a lifetime.
Through June 23 at the Atlantic Stage 2, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, atlantictheater.org. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.