Other Desert Cities | The Repertory Theatre

Other desertcities 75In any event, “Other Desert Cities” is well worth your time and attention, and I encourage you to see it.

When the Wyeth family, parents and two adult children, enter their posh Palm Springs home beautifully rendered on the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Mainstage after a round of tennis first thing in the morning, daughter Brooke (Celeste Ciulla) stands out from the others. She’s wearing dark leggings and an oversized tee shirt while the others are all in crisp tennis whites. It is Christmas Eve, and New Yorker Brooke is visiting her parents Lyman (Anderson Matthews) and Polly (Dee Hoty) and younger brother, Trip (Alex Hanna) for the first time in six years. A large Christmas tree dominates the otherwise stark living room and while everyone is acting jolly, the family’s interactions seem forced. What is going on here?

Brooke smiles a lot, but we learn that she has struggled mightily with depression for most of the time she has been gone. She was even institutionalized for a while. She is an author who wrote a well-received novel before she became so ill, but her medication seems to be working and she has written another book that began as fiction but became memoir. She has brought it with her to show the family before it is published. And while its publication date is still eight months away, the New Yorker magazine will be offering an excerpt very soon. At this point, her mother and father don’t know the nature of her story, though Trip and her aunt Silda (Glynis Bell), a recovering alcoholic living with her sister and brother-in-law, are aware of the subject matter. Silda shows up a little later.

The Wyeths talk about going to the “club” for a buffet. Polly, thin as a whippet with Helen Gurley Brown’s cheekbones and Nancy Reagan’s posture, demonstrates her discomfort with the proceedings by adding some vodka to her water “for flavor.” Trip withdraws without leaving the room, Lyman is voluble about his one-time movie career, and Brooke grins. She also talks enthusiastically, perhaps overly so, and the awkwardness in the room becomes increasingly palpable. It is an uncomfortable place for the audience to be, as well, even though they laugh, perhaps a bit nervously at every joke. Playwright Jon Robin Baitz’s script adds to the air of artificiality in this expository scene because everyone is saying stuff they already know but they have to convey it to us. This is one of the rare occasions that his background as a writer of a TV serial (“Brothers and Sisters”) is obvious.

There is one thing the parents don’t yet know, and Brooke dreads telling them, is that her book is about Henry, the oldest son of the family who became involved with a group of Vietnam War protesters back in the 1970s who bombed a building in which a man died. His conservative parents were shocked. Henry disappeared off a ferry in Seattle soon thereafter, and this has become the seminal event in this family’s current dynamic. It is now 2004. Try not to get too distracted trying to figure out how this couple is old enough to have had a son who would now be 50-something; admittedly it is hard to do. Apparently, then, Brooke is in her 40s. She has been married once to an Englishman her father thinks only wanted a green card, and her mother is judgmental about Brooke’s life in many ways. But while Polly criticizes Brooke on a superficial level, we can’t help but hear the real reason for her behavior: By succumbing to mental illness, Brooke lost control. Polly believes that control is of paramount importance in conducting one’s life, a lesson she learned from her mentor, “Nancy.” Of course, it was common knowledge that during the Reagans’ time in public life, they were estranged from their children, so it might have occurred to Polly that loosening up a little could be a good idea.

The Henry situation is also a sore subject because of how it derailed the Wyeths’ relationship with their “friends,” besides the Reagans, the Bloomingdales, Annenbergs, etc. But Polly got everyone to take them back after a stern talking-to at a ladies lunch, and Lyman became another ex-actor who embraced Republican politics, culminating in an Ambassadorship under Reagan. Many potshots are taken at the elder Wyeths by their children and Silda, who joins the party popping Antabuse and dropping one-liners. Once upon a time, she and Polly were screenwriters and had success with a series of films about a character named “Hillary,” a madcap type who got into all kinds of scrapes but always had happy endings. The name of their protagonist is probably not a coincidence. There seems to be no love lost between the sisters now, however, and Polly is stoically doing her duty by letting Silda stay with them while she dries out, yet again. For her part, Silda knows how much she needs these people because they are all she has. The balance of power here is uncomfortable, so Silda finds a nasty way to bite the hand that feeds her.

Also central to understanding Polly is the fact that she is an anti-Semitic Jew. While stereotypical Silda still shops for bargains and wears colorful designer knockoffs (she and Polly even argue whether her blouse is a real Pucci), Polly is a very model of WASP style. She is an amalgam and prototype of the wealthy Palm Springs matron. She is insulting about other ethnic groups, but she is still conflicted, and that is represented, of all places, in the Christmas tree which is decorated in Hanukkah colors (does she even realize that?). It seems that the worst part of Brooke’s tell-all memoir for Polly is that other people will know their business again. But there’s more. . . . .

Once again, the Rep stage has been filled with a lovely set designed by Michael Ganio. He has adapted his original concept to the space, and the mid-century modern aesthetic we’ve all seen displayed in pictures of the vacation homes inhabited by folks like Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra is on full view. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed how widespread that style was from Palm Springs ranches to Aspen ski lodges with commercial buildings from coast to coast in the mix. The mantle is loaded with photos, yet the tables are bare. The glass walls allow the sunlight to stream in, but as is appropriate here, much of the action is after dark. No matter the time of day, Phil Monet’s lights and Rusty Wandall’s sound (using increasingly depressing Christmas Carols to punctuate scenes) have the desired effect. David Kay Mickelsen’s costumes go a long way toward giving us an immediate sense of each character.

“Other Desert Cities” (the title is explained) explores family dynamics and expresses directly how we all have “our divergent truths.” The elder Wyeths, supporters of all things Reagan/Bush/Bush, believe in the war declared in the Middle East. And ironically, their own household is engaged in a desert conflict of its own. The audience did lock in on Act II, and they became very quiet after all the laughter during Act I, which means the work succeeds on the most important theatrical level.  And yet, director Steven Woolf has paced the show oddly, I think. The beginning is rushed, then the rest seems to take quite a long time to play out with Brooke perpetually and awkwardly grinning, Trip and Silda cracking wise, Polly stonewalling, and poor hapless Lyman sitting by devoutly wishing this were not happening.

After studied avoidance of the unpleasantness around him, at last, Lyman gets his moment, and old pro Matthews does make the most of his climactic speech, as Hoty does with hers. These are all fine actors, but either Woolf directed Ciulla to overplay Brooke, or she just doesn’t quite have a handle on the character yet. I can understand and even justify her performance choices; however, the character just doesn’t work for me yet. Considering her centrality to the proceedings with a script that teeters precariously on the brink of melodrama now and then, her performance throws off everyone’s timing just a beat so we have time to notice some weaknesses in the structure of the play. I’m not saying this isn’t a good production, but I wonder if it might find its footing more surely after a week or so and become an excellent one. I hope to revisit the Wyeths while they’re in residence and find out. In any event, “Other Desert Cities” is well worth your time and attention, and I encourage you to see it.

“Other Desert Cities” is at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through March 9, 2014. | Andrea Braun

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