Do not be fooled.
The laughs flow easily in “Other Desert Cities,” which Arizona Theatre Company opened Friday. But there is little that is funny about this Jon Robin Baitz play.
It is a riveting ride through a wildly dysfunctional family’s 2004 Christmas holiday.
“Other Desert Cities” is a tale thick with suspense, anger, betrayal, bitterness, deep love and deep misunderstandings. There are laughs, yes, but this is definitely not a comedy.
The story centers on the Wyeth family. Polly (Anne Allgood) and Lyman Wyeth (Lawrence Pressman) have lived what one might call a charmed life — she was a television writer, he an actor. When their good friends Nancy and Ronald Reagan are in the White House, Lyman is named an ambassador. They live among the rich, famous and very conservative. They are spending their later years in a Palm Springs home. It smacks of money and a 1950s Rat Pack sensibility (Ann Sheffield designed the impressive set).
Their daughter, Brooke (Paige Lindsey White), a published writer, has come for a visit after a six-year absence. In that time, she has had a divorce and a nervous breakdown and has written a soon-to-be-published memoir that paints her parents in an unfavorable light. Also home for the holiday is Polly’s brother, Trip (Will Mobley), a producer of a reality television show. Polly’s former writing partner and acid-tongued, alcoholic sister Silda (Robin Moseley) has just gotten out of rehab and is staying with the Wyeths until she can get back on her feet.
Brooke hopes her parents will give their blessing for her book, which lays big blame on them for her beloved brother’s suicide.
But there is much that Brooke does not know. This family, in fact, is shrouded in secrets.
Sounds like the makings for a joyful Christmas, doesn’t it?
The play is beautifully written and, save for a final, unnecessary scene that should be lopped off and thrown away, is sublimely constructed.
This ATC production is flawed, as well.
Director James Still has some clumsy placement of the actors — one blocking another from the audience’s view, backs turned on the audience for extended periods.
But the biggest flaw was in the second act, when everything comes to an emotional head. The actors all seemed to start that act on such a high level of intensity that when the play climaxed, they had nowhere to go. A low rise would have made for a much more taut, tense act and powerful finish.
Polly’s sharp tongue and ice-queen veneer were softened in Allgood’s version of the mother. That translated to less tension between mother and daughter, which also robbed the play of some of its impact.
Pressman’s father is the calm in this stormy household, and he nicely portrayed the man’s inner turmoil and clear love for his children.
White’s Brooke lacked the on-the-edge tension that you would expect from someone who is in fragile mental health and plagued with profound family memories. Nevertheless, there was a vulnerability about White that made the character memorable. Mobley nicely tackled the most difficult role, Trip, whom Baitz just sketched in.
The plum role in the play, really, is that of Silda, and Moseley gave her the swagger, bitterness and cutting wit necessary to make us laugh with her and be horrified by her.
This isn’t a perfect production. And it isn’t a perfect play. But its impact is forceful and ripples abundant — this is one you’ll find yourself talking about long after the curtain drops.