Other Desert Cities: Funny and Flawed

23 Dec
December 23, 2012

  The placid retirement community of Palm Springs and its remote, relaxation-obsessed way of life is almost a sixth character in Jon Robin Baitz’ play Other Desert Cities. The only people who love it are the people who live there. Their nearest and dearest deplore it. It’s

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Christmas 2004 and Hollywood expatriates Polly and Lyman Wyeth (JoBeth Williams and Robert Foxworth) are spending it with their grown children, Brooke (Robin Weigert) and Trip (Michael Weston)—but not happily. Polly and Lyman were in “the biz,” Lyman as a successful actor and Polly as a screenwriter. Their daughter Brooke, after struggling with severe depressive episodes, has finally finished the book she has been writing for forever. And Trip has taken a different direction: he produces reality-TV shows. Also on hand is Polly’s self-absorbed, alcoholic sister Silda (a marvelously wacky Jeannie Berlin). As is often the case when diverse family members get together in a single house—no matter how posh—for more than 15 minutes, the arguments and disagreements take over. The “kids” hate the blandness of Palm Springs and the other desert cities that surround it. But the parents refuse to be bullied. They also are stalling about reading Brooke’s manuscript. She has told them it is about them. This is a family that has secrets, and slowly they are revealed. There was an older brother who apparently committed suicide, and his death has haunted his sister ever since. She has more or less eulogized him in her book, much to her parents’ chagrin. Jon Robin Baitz is an entertaining playwright and his characters are engaging. Under Robert Egan’s direction the roles are well-defined. But there is a glitch in the scenario, which is distracting and disturbing. It deals with the time frame. If the older brother disappeared during the time of the Viet Nam War, as is disclosed by the others, he would be far too old to be a beloved playmate to his siblings. The war ended in 1974 and the play is set 30 years later. You do the math. Further, the parents, staunch Republicans, talk about hobnobbing with the Reagans. (Polly mentions her intimate friendship with “Nancy” several times.) But the Time of the Reagans was the ‘80s, some quarter of a century earlier. And the time of Reagan’s Governorship was even earlier than that. The difference in their ages during those years would have made them unlikely buddies. This is an untidy loose end that could be fixed easily. Or maybe I’m missing something? There are a plethora of other issues. Changed allegiances, beliefs vs truths, the conflict between perceptions and morals. And as Baitz states in the program notes, the play “argues for humility in the face of what you don’t know, and compassion in the face of what you do know.” At any rate, Other Desert Cities is well-mounted and pleasant to look at. Takeshi Kata’s living room set is easy on the eyes, and Lap Chi Chu’s lighting design (glowing desert sunsets and cumulus clouds) add pizazz to the setting. Other Desert Cities will continue at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, daily (except Monday) at 8 p.m.,

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Saturdays at 2 :30 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at l and 6:30 p.m. through January 6th, 2013. Call 213-628-2772 for tickets.   Photo: Jeannie Berlin and JoBeth Williams Photo by Craig Schwartz

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