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Review
"Other Desert Cities"

By: Jon Robin Baitz
Produced by: TheatreWorks
Featuring: Rod Brogan, Julia Brothers, Kandis Chappell, James Sutorius and Kate Turnbull
Directed by: Richard Seer
When: August 21 through September 15, 2013
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, California
Tickets:$19-$73 (savings available for educators, seniors, and patrons 30 and under); call 650-463-1960 or visit theatreworks.org

Other Desert Cities

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Other Desert Cities
Tracy Martin / TheatreWorks
Rod Brogan as Trip, Kate Turnbull as Brooke, Kandis Chappell as Polly and James Sutorius as Lyman, from left, as the Wyeth family, reuniting in Palm Springs in TheatreWorks' regional premiere of "Other Desert Cities" by Jon Robin Baitz, playing August 21 through September 15, 2013, at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.
Making the right turns to
'Other Desert Cities'
Brilliant play finds truth and pathos in surprising places, including in Palm Springs
August 26, 2013

"Other Desert Cities," by Jon Robin Baitz, is a kind of Shakespearian comedy/tragedy/history, with a powerful, emotional story to tell, and plenty of jokes for everybody, including the groundlings.

But instead of long-dead European royalty, it has an American family of elder, old-guard Republicans, and their liberal-minded children.

Lyman Wyeth is a former actor who was part of the inner circle of Republicans in the 1970s.

His wife, Polly, is a powerful woman in her own right, "the only woman to have faced down Nancy Reagan, Betsy Bloomingdale, and Mrs. Annenberg at the same lunch and reduced them all to tears. Tears of shame for their unconscionable behavior."

A tragedy occurred in the 1970s that put the Wyeth family in a bad light with the old guard. Polly's action at that lunch rebuilt the Wyeth family place in the GOP, and when "Ronnie" became president, Lyman became an ambassador.

Now it is the morning of Christmas Eve 2004, in the Wyeth's swanky home in Palm Springs. The Wyeths and their children, Brooke the writer and Trip the television producer, are just coming in from morning tennis.

Right away we know they are all smart, clever people who give each other no quarter in badinage, but we also learn right away that there are deeper tensions at work.

"I live in eastern Long Island," Brooke tells Polly, "Not Times Square, and I refuse to live like some sort of terrified — ... This is how you win at tennis, you agitate me — you get me really just — impossibly overheated —"

"I have no idea what you're talking about," her mother replies, with just a hint of a smile behind her eyes. "If you have a lousy serve, you have a lousy serve, darling, and if all it takes to win is to tell you that I think this war is entirely justified, well then, you shouldn't be playing tennis."

"Do you still own a revolver, Dad?" Brooke asks Lyman.

Very briefly, it seems almost like the kind of standard family stories we've seen before. But there is poesy and imagery at work here, and a story that has something deep to explore about families and about — believe it or not — the Republican Party.

Given the clown car the Republican Party has become, with Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, the tea party and that guy who tied his dog to the roof of his car, it's almost difficult to remember that some Republicans are, or were, people who believed in good things, and who stood by their friends.

The central tragedy of the Wyeth family had to do with the Vietnam War. Now, they are at odds over George W.'s invasion of Iraq. The elder Wyeths might be friends with W.'s father.

Other Desert Cities
Tracy Martin / TheatreWorks
Kate Turnbull as Brooke, left, with Kandis Chappell as her mother Polly in "Other Desert Cities."

But the real tension has to do with parental worry about Brooke, who had a breakdown, and still lives far away, in Sag Harbor, New York. Brooke is worried about how her parents are going to react to her latest book, which is all about that central tragedy of their lives, the death of her brother, Henry.

The cast in this production is excellent. Kandis Chappell is the power lady lion, Polly, who behaves the way Nancy taught her: " ... that to control everything, every bit of information, every gesture, every pose, that was the way to live. Order. Precision. Discipline." Chappell's Polly shows love for her children, but she also stands like a rock in defense of what she believes.

James Sutorius is every inch the former actor — his run-through of some of his death scenes from the movies is completely hilarious — who believes he can be the mediator, the elder statesman, in his fractured family.

Rod Brogan is completely the guy who is proud of the silly "reality" TV show he produces, but has his own mental and emotional issues.

Kate Turnbull does a very impressive job in a very difficult role, Brooke. She shows us Brooke's needful conflicts with her parents, her need to tell the story of the brother she misses terribly — and she must turn on a dime when it comes to the final reveals of the play, to pull and tear at our heartstrings. Which she does.

Julia Brothers is delightful in what would be called the clown role in Shakespeare's day, although she is much more than that here. She plays Silda Grauman, Polly's sister. The two were writing partners back in their Hollywood days.

Now Silda is having to stop drinking — she's taking antabuse.

"They gave me this antabuse stuff. You know what it is? If you drink you can't stop throwing up, believe me, I've weighed the options."

Silda comes late to the party, very funny, and offers a little break from the tension. Later, she is part of the build up to the revelations of the play.

The set and lighting are very impressive. Alexander Dodge designed the set, which in this co-production with The Old Globe, was first used in San Diego, then moved to Mountain View in two huge semis.

It is a beautiful living room in Palm Springs, with a curved wall of glass in the background, through which we can see Mount San Jacinto, first in the morning light. As the day progresses, we see the sun set and the sky darken over the mountain — which is both a very fine bit of work by longtime TheatreWorks lighting designer Steven B. Mannshardt, and a poetic image about the downfall of the old-guard Republicans.

A fine bit of direction by Richard Seer: Everybody in the cast is very good about putting everything back in its place. If Trip uses a throw pillow, he puts it back where it belongs after using it. Empty bottles go to the bar in the corner. People with nice things take care of them.

It's a great time in the theater when the audience gets to truly laugh and have a good time, and then is moved by some greater truth to tears. "Other Desert Cities" was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, and it's very much worth seeing.

Other Desert Cities
Mark Kitaoka / TheatreWorks
Julia Brothers as Silda, left, and Kandis Chappell as her sister Polly in TheatreWorks' Regional Premiere of "Other Desert Cities," by Jon Robin Baitz, playing August 21 through September 15, 2013, at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.


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