Other Desert Cities, a two act play by Jon Robin Baitz, is a drama with a premise that sounds like a dysfunctional family sitcom.Now at Fells Point through Feb. 8th, it is a play about a family riven by pride, politics, fear, money and a not-so-secret secret.
Originally an Off-Broadway show that moved to Broadway in late 2011, it is a riveting production directed by Michael Byrne Zemarel.
If you want to leave a show feeling your face to see if you’ve been burned by the heat of the actors’ intensity – go see Other Desert Cities.
Other Desert Cities takes its name from a sign on Highway 10 E stating the driver is headed towards Indio, CA, and “other Desert Cities” further on in Southern California’s Coachella Valley.
Most of the play takes place Christmas Eve 2004 in the living room of Lyman (Dave Gamble) and Polly Wyeth (Lynda McClary), a wealthy couple.
The chic set is decorated with mid-century modern furniture and accents including an animal skin rug topped with a white retro coffee table. The set, designed and built by Bush Greenbeck, has a well-stocked (and oft-used) bar, glistening with glassware and top label liquor bottles.
A pair of built-in wooden bookshelves flank a fireplace stacked with flickering logs. Above the fireplace is a dome mirror with a sunburst frame. The shelves are laden with upscale bric-a-brac, oject d’art, a handful of books, and framed family photos.
In the opposite corner is a beautifully decorated and lit Christmas tree, with gifts encircling its base.
The tree is ironic: the Wyeths are Jewish.
Not a Menorah in sight.
Lyman is a former, old-time Hollywood actor with 50 death scenes on film. After his career waned, he was a Clint Eastwood-esque spokesperson for the California wine industry before becoming a politician. Part of the elite Hollywood Republican Old Guard led by Ron and Nancy Reagan, Lyman is appointed as an ambassador after the Reagans move into the White House.
Before her marriage, Lyman’s wife, Polly, teamed with her sister Silda (Linda Chambers), was a hugely successful scriptwriter for an MGM movie series about an adventurous single girl. Of the two sisters, Polly is the outspoken one.
She quit the movie writing business when the movie heroine’s lifestyle became too carefree and filled with surfers, drugs and feminism.
Though Lyman complains of his daughter’s “abhorrent left politics,” Polly is the one who makes outrageously stinging comments like: “Sarcasm is the purview of teenagers and homosexuals.”
Silda, just out of rehab for her drinking problem – and family problems, is living at the Wyeths’ house.
Trip (David Shoemaker) is the Wyeth’s youngest child. Tall, lanky and handsome, he is the producer of a reality series, a daily show set in a courtroom.
Litigants face a retired judge and a juror of semi-celebrities, including a “few midgets.” A product of Hollywood, Trip is relaxed and more likely to see myriad sides of an issue.
He loves his mother, father, sister and aunt and is often caught in the crossfire as he attempts to placate all the combatants. Trip, while a member of the Wyeth family, is also a surrogate for the audience. Most of what unfolds is new to him.
Trip (Shoemaker), usually at the bar fixing a drink, or out of the center of the action, reacts to what is going on and acts as the middle man, the conciliator. And, the one who rolls a joint to help calm things down.
The show’s trigger is Brooke (Laura Malkus).
She is the Wyeth’s only daughter. A promising novelist and a magazine writer, Brooke lives in Sag Harbor, part of the Hamptons – and loves East Coast life. You can’t get more East Coast than that.
It’s her first visit home in six years. Issues and memories held her back.
About eight years earlier, she’d suffered a severe nervous breakdown. Polly went to her bedside and nursed her back to health.
More recently, Brooke has emerged from a bad three-year marriage from a Brit who merely wanted his green card. She is still fragile. Very fragile.
Brooke has also completed a book, and sold it to a major publishing house. In just a few weeks, part of it is about to be excerpted in The New Yorker.
Normally, her parents would be thrilled and proud for her. And, they are. Until they learn Brooke’s book is a memoire. Her memoire. About a family tragedy that was swept under the carpet decades before.
When the tragedy happened, the Wyeths were shunned by their social set.
The Wyeth couple was so mortified, they removed themselves from the Hollywood hustle to the quieter life of Palm Springs. Polly cornered Nancy Reagan, Betsey Bloomingdale, and Lee Annenberg at a charity luncheon and told them the full story.
The publication of Brooke’s book threatens to tear Polly and Lyman’s carefully reconstructed social world apart, again.
Adding to the layers of the family’s trauma, Silda helped Brooke write the book – but neglected to provide a few key details. Like her role in the original tragedy.
Of course, her parents want Brooke to stop the publication of the book. They’ll give her money. A house. Anything.
Sitting in the theater, which seats nearly 80 in a comfortable movie theatre seating, it is hard to be comfortable watching this incredibly passionate work.
The audience is caught in the middle of a family fight which rages over an entire day.
“I’m so tired of the indentured servitude of having a family,” Brooke says.
“Well, it won’t be much longer,” Polly threatens.
“Stop fighting like weasels in a pit,” says Trip.
It was hard to tell when the acting stops and genuine emotion takes over.
Every one of the five sterling actors stepped into their character’s shoes and skins and lived their roles.
Sidla is definitely that pain-in-the-ass sister/aunt/weird relative we all have in our family tree, ready to stick a fork into any family feud, just to egg things on.
Silda dismisses her sister’s Palm Springs neighbors as “mummies with tans.”
(Linda Chambers will probably never get a star on the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce’s sidewalk for her performance.)
Polly is a multi-faceted character that’s easy to dislike. She casually drops stereotypical insults about “chinks” and other groups, races to recover her elite social status, and will argue about what is a “true” Pucci. But. She is a mom, too.
And, portrayed by an actress who commands the stage.
Lyman seems to be a chip off the Ronald Reagan mold. Tall, handsome and out of it. When Polly threatens to never speak to Brooke again if the book is published, Lyman is quick to say, “No comment. I’ll keep saying it until I die.”
Then he reads the book.
Brooke is the center of the story – and the stage. Kudos to Laura Malkus for a role well lived.
These folks should take a bow, too: Stephy Miller for stage direction and as booth technician, lighting and sound design by Brad Ranno, and Barry Feinstein as the producer.
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission.