Reviewed by George Basler
Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities asks some provocative questions: When does truth-telling carry a cost that is too painful to bear? When does artistic freedom mean betrayal? Should some secrets stayed buried?
It offers no easy answers, but it does provide an absorbing evening of theater.
The play was nominated for a Tony Award and named as a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. The recognition is well-deserved. Baitz’s play skillfully mixes intensely emotional moments with some brittle humor. The production, which opened last week at the Chenango River Theatre in Greene, is equally strong.
The five-member cast, directed by Bill Lelbach, does a first-rate job. The performances are nuanced and satisfying as the actors bring to life characters who are neither all white nor all black but a complex mixture of flaws and vulnerabilities.
The scene is Christmas Eve in the slightly sterile Palm Springs, Calif., home of Lyman Wyeth (Michael Arcesi), a former movie actor who became involved in conservative Republican politics, and his wife, Polly (Roxanne Fay), who has transformed herself from a Texas Jew into a goy and GOP grande dame.
Sparks begin to fly when their daughter, Brooke (Heidi Weeks), a liberal New York writer who has emerged from a prolonged depression, reveals that she has written a family memoir. The book focuses on the parents’ rejection of her older brother, Henry, a 1960s political radical, who became estranged from the family over the Vietnam War and apparently committed suicide after planting a bomb that killed an innocent person.
The news goes over like a bomb under the Christmas tree. Lyman and Polly are stunned and angry, and the play focuses on whether Brooke’s book is a liberating expression of artistic freedom or a selfish betrayal of a family that wants to keep the past in the past.
Caught in the crossfire is Trip (Dan Mian), a seemingly shallow television producer. Also on hand to stir the pot is Silda (DoriMay Ganisin), Polly’s alcoholic sister, who is fresh out rehab, broke and ready to sling bitter barbs with a sense of glee.
As the characters live through an anguished holiday, old family secrets are dredged up, and old wounds revealed. The tension grows through the two acts, leading to an unexpected twist at the end.
It’s to Baitz’s credit that the surprise ending grows naturally out of the action and doesn’t seem forced.
Some reviewers have noted that the family’s situation is a microcosm of all the unhealed wounds from the Vietnam War, now close to a half century old. Certainly the play will have a special resonance for people who lived through that traumatic time.
But, to my way of thinking, Other Desert Cities is not a political play. The play’s strength lies in the fact that it is a compelling family drama about multi-faceted characters. Baitz views them critically but also with understanding and compassion.
Weeks’ portrayal of Brooke is a strong one, conveying both the character’s anger and fragility. The performance is nuanced, and Weeks is not reluctant to make the character unlikeable at times. Her interpretation leaves open the question of whether Brooke’s book is an emotional catharsis, an act of revenge, or both.
The rest of the cast is strong as well.
As Polly, Fay slowly reveals the layers under the character’s flinty exterior to show her protectiveness and vulnerability. Especially effective is Fay’s use of body language. Her rigid posture shows someone who is deathly afraid that her whole world will collapse if she shows any weakness.
Arcesi gives an equally compelling performance as a father who is desperately trying to keep his family together at all costs. His monologue at the end of the play revealing the family’s long-kept secret is riveting.
As Trip, the younger brother, Mian successfully shows the underlying desperation that covers the character’s surface happiness.
Meanwhile, Ganisin does a good job playing the frantic and neurotic Silda. Her portrayal, for all its humor, reveals a character who is basically a selfish wreck.
All in all, Other Desert Cities is a deeply satisfying play. Credit should go to Lelbach for his direction that never lets the action lag. He also designed a terrific set.
The Chenango River Theatre is ending its season on a high note.
IF YOU GO: Other Desert Cities will run through Oct. 11 at the Chenango River Theatre, 991 State Route 12, Greene. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $22 to $25. Call the box office at 656-8499, or visit www.chenangorivertheatre.org