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Arts & Entertainment

Review: Other Desert Cities

From Issue: Volume XX - Number 26
12/28/2012


By Ben Miles

Jon Robin Bates’ latest play, “Other Desert Cities,” has achieved something remarkable in this venally inclined age of the American theater. It transferred from a successful run Off-Broadway, to an acclaimed stint on Broadway. What’s even more astonishing is that – in era when mega-musicals are crowding the stages of the Great White Way – “Other Desert Cities” is a twisted familial drama in the tradition of Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Edward Albee. As if to validate the worthiness of “Other Desert Cities,” it was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as a 2012 nominee for a Tony Award for Best Play.

Now, “Other Desert Cities” is having its west coast premiere at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper, through January 6, and it is – despite top-notch production values and an esteemed cast – a disappointment dramatically.

Though the cast has been changed from the Broadway line-up of Stacy Keach, Stockard Channing, Rachel Griffins, Judith Light and Thomas Sadoski to an indigenous So Cal ensemble – which includes the formidable Robert Foxworth as Lyman Wyeth, a tiring JoBeth Williams as Polly Wyeth, a stridently affective Robin Weigart as Brooke Wyeth, as well as Jeannie Berlin as Silda Grauman and Michael Weston as Trip Wyeth – the show is too long, too tortuous and far less provocative than playwright Baitz must have intended.

The plot is a set up that seems likely and possibly even ordinary. Brooke Wyeth (Robin Weigart) returns from her politically liberal life in New York to the Palm Springs home of her retired but still staunchly Republican parents (Lyman and Polly Wyeth, as portrayed by Foxworth and Williams, respectively); it’s Christmas time, 2004, so younger adult brother Trip is there, too (Michael Weston). (Their father, an erstwhile actor, is a former United States Ambassador, appointed during the Reagan presidency.) And, as if to conveniently roll-out a loose cannon meant for launching regular discharges of deft, if not always welcomed, dialogue and insight – there’s Polly’s middle-aged and recovering-alcoholic Sister, Silda (Jeannie Berlin). Brooke, a long-suffering depressive, has in her possession a scathing memoir she has written based on her experience with the nuclear Wyeth family. Mom and Dad Wyeth, however, inveigh to Brooke not to publish the memoir while they’re still alive.

But there’s a turn in the narrative, which supposedly gives the staging more dramatic juice. Without revealing too much, it’s has to do with an older brother to Brooke and Trip, Henry, who is thought to have committed suicide after having become active in a radical political group, such as the Symbionese Liberation Army or the Weather Underground. It is his unsettled spirit that is the unseen but haunting force in this less than functional All-American family.

Not only has the entire cast been changed from the New York productions of “Other Desert Cities,” the crew is also new to the show. Takeshi Kata’s set design easily transports us to the California desert environ that envelops this show, while Alex Jaeger’s costuming is appropriately in the mode of California casual. Karl Fredrik Lundeberg’ original music composition adds dramatic texture to the proceedings and Lap Chi Chu’s lighting motif accentuates the moody December skies of the not always Sunny California.

Moreover, the east coast stagings of “Other Desert Cities” had Joe Montello as director. This latest mounting of the show has Robert Egan at the helm. This may account for some of the inaudibility of the performers. Often they turn away from the audience when delivering their zingers. If the lines can’t be heard, meaning is lost. This lessens the impact of the play.

New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley wrote in his 2011 review of the Broadway iteration of “Other Desert Cities,” “I felt new subtleties (and less a sense of formula) in the family dynamics [of the Broadway production than in the Off-Broadway iteration].” Perhaps that’s the issue with this latest production of “Other Desert Cities.” Maybe over time the cast will discover more nuances of character and depth of circumstance. With lines like “Families get terrorized by their weakest member” and what Brooke refers to as “the indentured servitude of family” the script surely has both wisdom and conflict in ample amounts. Now it’s a matter of tightening, and then speeding the cycle of family dynamics on display in this two and-a-half presentation.

When: Through January 6. Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinees are at 2:30 0n Saturdays and at 1 p.m. on Sundays. There are also 6:30 p.m. performances on Sundays

Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 North Grand Avenue, Los Angeles

How: Foe reservations call (213)628-2772. For online ticketing visit wwwCenterTheareGroup.org.

ben@longbeachcomber.com