Other Desert Cities
Scott Edmiston directs this SpeakEasy Stage Company production of the Jon Robin Baitz’s "Other Desert Cities," a play that delves into the divisions that bring tension -- but also dynamism -- to any family.
Baitz set his play, first produced two years ago, in the middle of George W. Bush’s administration when the war in Iraq is in full swing. On the home front, in another desert locale -- namely, Palm Springs, wayward novelist daughter Brooke (Anne Gottlieb), devoutly liberal, has returned to the home of her Hollywood parents for a Yuletide visit. Brooke’s father, Lyman (Munson Hicks) is a former film and television actor who has turned, in recent decades, to politics -- namely, those of the GOP. Mother Polly (Karen MacDonald) is a former screenwriter, remembered, if at all, for the series of films she wrote with her sister, recovering alcoholic Silda (Nancy E. Carroll). Brother Trip (Christopher M. Smith) is a television producer with a hot new reality program.
The play’s themes of opposition, contradiction, and paradox are evident before the first line is spoken, embodied in the set design by Janie E. Howland -- a gorgeous, fantastically detailed living room that looks out, via huge plate glass windows, onto a cartoonish sky and desert landscape. The elephant in this gorgeously appointed room is Brooke’s new novel, which turns out to be not a novel at all but rather a memoir concerning sensitive family matters. It seems that Brooke and Trip once had another sibling, an older brother named Henry. The fate of this long-gone older brother, and the repercussions it has had on everyone concerned, is the subject of the memoir, and the driving force of the play.
Everyone has a differing account of who Henry was and what drove him away from the family, into radical politics, and to his apparent suicide. Brooke blames her parents, whom she sees as in thrall, against their own better judgment, to the right wing’s ideology of blame, fear, and punishment. Polly, a onetime close confidant of Nancy Reagan, believes the key to retaining dignity (one’s own and that of one’s family) lies with keeping close control over any and all facts; to her, Brooke’s memoir is not only "spurious" and ill-informed, but risks throwing fresh light on painful private matters.
It’s probably a coincidence, but Gottlieb’s performance reminds one of Rachel Griffiths, who starred in "Brothers and Sisters" (and also "Six Feet Under"). Given that network suits tossed Baitz off his own show after the first of its five seasons, one wonders whether "Other Desert Cities" is a means for Baitz to finish the conversation he might have wanted to have via that television series. The play is potent enough to do the job; its nuances explore a spectrum of social, political, and ethical conundrums. (Making the connection even stronger is that Griffiths played the role when "Other Desert Cities" transferred to Broadway.)
Edmiston’s direction underscores all of these elements, and does so gracefully; the cast offers fine work, allowing their interpretations to fill in any gaps and carry the play over sections of clunky dialogue. MacDonald excels as Polly, who has long been in the driver’s seat in any set of circumstances; Hicks brings polish and depth, even a sort of regal bearing, to Lyman; Gottlieb visibly suffers and emotionally writhes as she weighs her need for expression and release against the pain she’s inflicting on her family. Smith is given comparatively little to do for the play’s first half, in which Trip is thinly drawn; but when Trip bursts to life in Act 2, it’s with full-bore brio.
The standout here is Nancy R. Carroll, who illuminates every scene she’s in and turns every line into a hard-hewn jewel, much as she did in the Huntington Theatre’s recent production of "Good People." Even among this top-notch cast, she delivers an exceptional performance.
Also polished are the sound design and affecting original score by Dewey Dellay and Karen Perlow’s gorgeously composed lighting design. Overall, this production makes the most of some dense, occasionally uneven material. Families are complex organisms, inherently full of friction and strife; the best families are bound deeply by compassion, respect, and love. All of that, plus some healing laughter, blossoms in this "Desert."
"Other Desert Cities" continues through Feb. 9, 2013 at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. For more information visit the SpeakEasy Stage website.
"Other Desert Cities" continues through Feb. 9 at the Boston Center for the Arts, located at 527 Tremont Street in Boston’s South End. Tickets start at $25; students, seniors, and those 25 and younger receive discounted prices. For tickets and more information, please visit www.speakeasystage.com