Durango, Julia Cho’s subdued melodrama currently running at The Public Theater, casts a bland eye on the ever-deceptive American Dream, as experienced by one shattered Korean-American family. The story (which could also be subtitled Near-Death of a Salesman) begins with the firing of Boo-Seng Lee (James Saito), the family’s reticent patriarch, after twenty years of thankless service as a non-descript mid-level bean-counter.

The termination deals a heavy blow to a man with little left in his life besides the ostensible achievements of his two sons: 21-year-old Isaac (James Yaegashi) has just returned from a med school interview that his father arranged through a friend; 13-year-old Jimmy (Jon Norman Schneider) is a swimming champ on track for a scholarship. (Boo-Seng’s wife succumbed to cancer years prior.)

Rather than face the facts of his suddenly imperiled situation, Boo-Seng exhibits a degree of cultural assimilation by opting for that perennial American panacea: Road trip. At dinner, with no mention made of his firing, he announces to his boys that they will leave for Durango in the morning. Jimmy, desperate for the trio to connect as a family, is ecstatic. But Isaac threatens to stay home; he has every reason to avoid his father since his return from the med school interview. After much begging and pleading from his kid brother, Isaac finally agrees to go in exchange for a glimpse at just what Jimmy has been toiling on in his little notebook: a comic book story about the Red Angel (Jay Sullivan), a winged hero who repeatedly bursts on stage with unbridled absurdity to save the day – and the play – from relentless conventionality.

Out on the open road, the family secrets start tumbling out. Although the play’s themes are prosaic, Cho has the skill to treat them with a tasteful, understated elegance. To her credit, she doesn’t seem interested in her character’s deceptions for their value as titillating plot twists but for the deep scars they expose.

So it spoils nothing to divulge the Lees’ skeletons; they’re almost all visible by mile marker one. Through the course of their meandering trip, we learn that Isaac pulled a classic Biff Loman and blew off the interview at the last moment. Jimmy, it turns out, hates swimming and has only kept at it to please his father. His real interests lie in the school band and his sketch book, where his Red Angel comic mingles with illustrations of a more homoerotic nature. (During a series of haunting interludes where each Lee drops character to soliloquize as the deceased matriarch, we learn that Jimmy is turning out to be more like his father than anyone knows.)

In 2006 homosexuality is still a controversial taboo in some families, but as a narrative device it’s now merely quaint. Schneider brings an enjoyable enthusiasm to the role of Jimmy but it seems that Chay Yew’s direction has steered him toward cliché; when we first see him flitting about the kitchen in an apron it’s pretty clear what “issues” will inevitably be tackled. Yaegashi is mostly one-dimensional as Isaac; although at times his disaffection gives way to a tenderness for his kid brother, it’s somehow unconvincing. Yaegashi and Schneider are both professionals who hit all their marks but they’re limited by characters that seem more like personified plot points than real, multi-faceted people.

Saito is initially compelling as the stoic patriarch but because the story affords him little chance to let down his guard we’re left wanting more. The few moments when he does open up are more engaging, as when he begins to unburden himself to a stranger (Ross Bickell) by the motel pool or pitifully begs for his job from his boss (Jay Sullivan's second role). These scenes are Durango’s most affecting for the way they highlight Boo-Seng’s terrible isolation: it is only in the presence of strangers that he seems able open up.

But because Durango’s plot neatly unfolds with the all the sentimental familiarity of a Hallmark TV special, the characters’ revelations have little impact. The problem is not so much that we know each one's secrets before the others do, but that we’ve seen such dysfunctions explored to death in this naturalistic way.

Happily, Cho knows better than to resolve the Lee family’s anguish with a feel-good, group hug ending; at the trip’s end we leave the father and his two sons to withdraw back into their lonely corners. Her ambiguous, untidy ending certainly comes as a relief but it can’t really make up for all the tidiness along the way.

Durango continues through December 10th at The Public Theater. Ticket prices vary. Photo by Michal Daniel.