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Arts & Entertainment

Review: 'Other Desert Cities'

From Issue: Volume XXII - Number 12
6/13/2014


By Ben Miles

“Other Desert Cities” had unlikely Broadway success in 2012 (it was “upgraded” from Off-Broadway status to a life on the Great White Way, a rare achievement these days). The play, by Jon Robin Baitz, garnered two nominations that any playwright would likely be proud to claim: the play was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a contender for the Tony Award for Best Play.

Having played the west coast as recently as 18 months ago at LA’s Mark Taper Forum, “Other Desert Cities” is again on the boards in Southern California, in an independently produced staging at Long Beach’s International City Theatre. Under the direction of Caryn Desai, “Other Desert Cities” remains a cumbersome drama that focuses on family secrets, rationalization, and denial. And though there are traces of Edward Albee-like urbane pathos and Arthur Miller-type social commentary – as if these master dramatists were models for Baitz’s conceit – the characters on display in Baitz’s play are nothing short of repugnant, full of self-pity and deluded perspectives that could only be indulged by the pampered and over privileged strata of our society.

The plot is a simple one. Brooke Wyeth (a volatile Ann Noble) arrives from her liberal lifestyle in New York to her parent’s home.
Now comfortably retired and living the dream in Palm Springs, Brooke’s mom, Polly (Suzanne Ford, striking in appearance) and Lyman (a stagy Nicholas Hormann) are acquainted with Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Lyman was an ambassador during Reagan’s presidential administration (like Reagan, Lyman too is an erstwhile actor, remembered most for his method of on screen dying).

It’s Christmas time 2004, and Brooke’s younger brother Trip (Blake Anthony Edwards in a believable characterization) – a producer of a reality TV program – is also at the family estate in recognition of the holiday. While her parents remain staunchly conservative members of the GOP, Brooke is a born again liberal.

What’s more, Brooke, long suffering from clinical depression, has written a tell-all memoir about her family. To add insult to this injury, Polly’s sister, Silda (Eileen T’Kaye playing what amounts to a stock character) is a truth-telling, recovering alcoholic.

Soon we learn that there’s another child in the Wyeth family, Brooke and Trip’s older brother Henry — who, to the dismay of his parents, became a member of a radical political action group, and is now believed to have committed suicide. As the family dynamic and taboos become more and more revealed, and as the gossamer vale of hypocrisy becomes even more transparent, we realize why Lyman and Polly are so opposed to having Brooke’s book published while they’re still living.

“Other Desert Cities” is a two and-a-quarter-hour staging, and seems longer. While the high production values work well in setting time and place (who’d of thought that the year 2004 would be the subject of a period piece so soon?), JR Bruce’s scenic design, Debra Garcia Lockwood’s lighting, and Kim DeShazo’s costuming are especially transportive.

“Other Desert Cities” continues at Long Beach’s International City Theatre through June 29. ICT is located in the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 East Ocean Boulevard. Evening performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. Matinees are Sundays at 2 p.m. For reservations, call (562) 436-4610. For online ticketing and further information, visit International City Theatre.

ben@longbeachcomber.com