BWW Review: OTHER DESERT CITIES Showcases Trio of Actresses
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by Nancy Grossman
Other Desert Cities
Written by Jon Robert Baitz, Directed by Scott Edmiston; Scenic Design, Janie E. Howland; Costume Design, Charles Schoonmaker; Lighting Design, Karen Perlow; Original Music/Sound Design, Dewey Dellay; Production Stage Manager, Katie Ailinger
Performances through February 9 at SpeakEasy Stage Company, Wimberly Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.BostonTheatreScene.com
When Brooke Wyeth visits her parents in Palm Springs over the holidays, it marks the first time in six years she has ventured to the West Coast from her safe haven in Sag Harbor, Long Island. Along with the manuscript for her latest book, I hope she packed her body armor. She is about to become embroiled in a family feud that could sever their relationship unless Brooke is willing to back down. That seems unlikely since she shares the genes of her mother Polly, a dragon lady made in the same mold as Nancy Reagan.
Ron and Nancy are just a couple of the names frequently dropped in Other Desert Cities, a complex comedy-drama by Jon Robin Baitz in its New England premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company. The generational divide in the Wyeth family includes political party loyalties, fashion, opinions about the Vietnam War, and lifestyle choices, for starters. All of these topics provide fodder for discussion in the Wyeth home on Christmas Eve 2004, but they are merely appetizers for the main course. After Brooke reveals that her new book is a family memoir, not a novel as everyone expected, the knives come out to slice it (and her) to shreds, metaphorically speaking.
By way of background, Lyman Wyeth (Munson Hicks) is a retired film actor and former chair of the Republican National Committee. Domineering Polly (Karen MacDonald) is a pit bull with lipstick, but knows how to turn on the surface charm. Her sister Silda (Nancy E. Carroll), just out of alcohol rehab, lives with them, but is an avowed liberal who does not share their views or their values. Younger brother Trip (Christopher M. Smith), producer of a reality TV show, is also visiting for the holidays, but makes it known that he has at least three better invitations. Besides her frowned upon bohemian lifestyle, Brooke (Anne Gottlieb) has to answer for her divorce and have her post-breakdown mental health constantly scrutinized by Mommy Dearest.
The central family secret that they have all worn like a shroud for twenty-five years concerns the suicide of older brother Henry following his involvement with a bombing at an army recruiting center. He had been estranged from his parents and connected with a radical political cult, but was devastated when a custodian was killed in the attack. Brooke's understanding is that Henry came to his parents for help and they refused, leading him to commit suicide. Her big brother was more than her best friend; he was her world, and she was compelled to write the story to overcome her grief, find a way to breathe, and move on.
Lyman and Polly are horrified that their daughter is dredging up the past and going public with it imminently. They've been comfortably living the revisionist version of their lives in the desert and fear having their cover blown, so to speak. Brooke wants their acquiescence, if not their blessing, before an excerpt runs in "The New Yorker" in January. Silda is wholeheartedly supportive, encouraging her not to back down; Trip takes a more neutral stance, wanting to be there for his sister, but unable to recognize the one-dimensional monsters she describes in her book as the parents who raised him.
Scott Edmiston directs this New England premiere production that is blessed with a cast of the highest order and he makes the most of their talentS. MacDonald showcases an array of Charles Schoonmaker's costume designs while chewing the scenery and garnering sympathy even when Polly is at her most vicious. She makes us want to understand where she's coming from. Few can compete with Carroll's ability to deliver caustic or comic remarks with an immovable deadpan expression. Silda doesn't have a lot of lines, but Carroll speaks volumes with her tone and her rhythm, nailing every sarcastic laugh line and mustering steely resolve when she has to stand up to Polly.
We have come to expect courageous performances from Gottlieb (n.b. her 2011 IRNE and Elliot Norton Awards for Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune at New Repertory Theatre) and she continues in that vein as Brooke. This is a woman who is fighting for her sanity and her life, and doing so by going to war against her parents, as Henry had done so many years ago. At the same time, she is at war with herself because she desperately seeks their approval. When the battle reaches a fever pitch, Gottlieb is raw and primal as she conveys how broken and devastated Brooke is in that moment.
In order to be noticed in the wake of this trio of extraordinary actresses, Hicks and Smith have to be startlingly good. Lyman and Trip seem to know in their bones that they are meant to hover in the background behind these outspoken women. They choose their battles, but they do not surrender entirely. Hicks is totally credible as an old-school Republican, conservative but not fanatical. Lyman loves and worries about Brooke, and loves his wife and their life in the desert, but there is a tug of war going on that plays across Hicks' face until he can't take it anymore. After he erupts, he has the physical appearance of a balloon that has expelled its air. Trip is sort of the forgotten star in the family constellation, so Smith is casual and relaxed, often underplaying the role of slacker. He blends well with everyone, not having any big scenes, until the beginning of the second act. Brooke's hard sell attempt to enlist Trip as her confederate pushes him to reveal some intimate details of his life, to make her see him for who he is, and Smith digs deep to mine these feelings.
The merits of the story and the validity of Brooke's personal interpretation notwithstanding, the focal question is whether or not we own our own story and have the right to tell it publicly, even as others are implicated in the telling. Each member of the family has his or her viewpoint and Baitz gives equal weight to them all. You may find yourself vacillating, as I did, in trying to decide which side you're on. It might come down to which of the characters resonates with you, or which of the actors you favor, or maybe you can't ignore the gray areas that cloud the choices about whether (and when) or not to publish the book. Baitz takes care to point out that we don't always know all of the facts and, regardless of our choices, there are consequences.
Other Desert Cities had its world premiere at Lincoln Center in December, 2010, and ran through the end of February, 2011, as scheduled. It was named Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play by the Outer Critics Circle. It re-opened in October of that year at the Booth Theater on Broadway where it received five 2012 Tony nominations, including Best Play (Judith Light won for Best Featured Actress in a Play as Silda). ODC was also a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The SpeakEasy Stage production builds on that pedigree, but also puts its own identifying stamp on the play, thanks to the quality work by Edmiston, the team of designers, and the stellar ensemble.