Wednesday, February 29, 2012

REVIEW: Other Desert Cities

Review of the Saturday, February 25 matinee performance.  At the Booth Theatre in New York City.  Starring Stockard Channing, Rachel Griffiths, Stacy Keach, Judith Light and Justin Kirk.  A new play by Jon Robin Baitz.  Directed by Joe Mantello.  2 hours, 30 minutes including intermission.

Grade: A+

SPOILER ALERT: Given the nature of this play, I do not intend to give away any of the plot, but in discussing the performance, I may inadvertently do so.  If you have not seen the play and wish to see it cold (which I heartily recommend), you may wish to stop reading now. 

Jon Robin Baitz' Other Desert Cities is that increasingly rare Broadway commodity: a thought-provoking, funny, intensely emotional drama, featuring five tour-de-force performances of intelligence, surgeon-like precision and amazing subtlety, and a jaw-dropping plot twist that will have your mind spinning hours after the final curtain.

It is about opposing political views coming head-to-head.  It is about the difference in generations.  It is about parenting, family loyalty, family responsibility... family secrets. And it is about living one's life under a certain set of beliefs, then realizing everything you believed to be true isn't.

The Other Desert Cities Company

The visually stunning set designed by John Lee Beatty, on view as you wait for the show to start, is a study in contrasts.  A rounded great room in a tony Palm Springs home, the space is dominated by trendy stone walls, up lit to show the spectrum of beige rocks in use (designed by Kenneth Posner).  Within the space, there are overlapping circles - a huge, round fireplace, with a lone flame that calls to mind the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; a round living space, dominated by three round furniture pieces - two single person chase lounges and a backless two person ottoman; and a round dining space with round table, 4 chairs, and a glass serving bar.  The only view of the outside comes from very high, thin windows that offer a glimpse of the very tops of palm trees.  The place looks like it cost a fortune and is as put together as a spread in Home and Garden.  Perfectly put together and perfectly off-putting.  There is no comfortable space to sit and certainly no place for conversation.  Even the place for meals can't fit the entire family of 5.  Mere seconds into the play, it becomes evident as to why the set is so brilliantly a part of the story.

Directing the play with a shrewd economy of chess-like movements, Joe Mantello creates a visual metaphor for this highly functional dysfunctional family.  Watch as they rarely touch each other (and when they do, it is at arm's length), choosing instead to circle each other like caged animals either ready to pounce or in all out defense mode.  There are frequent references to what a "good family" looks like and acts like.  In a family of actors turned politicos, it should be no surprise that they are a study in appearance vs. reality.

Justin Kirk as Trip Wyeth

Judith Light and Stockard Channing

The five actors assembled here are, as a company, brilliant in their give and take during scenes, and thrilling to watch as they coalesce right before your eyes into the exact family Baitz has written.  In a constant battle for dominance, they pace the floor, gesture with booze-filled glasses, and talk over each other sometimes, allowing long silences other times, and even occasionally leaving the room mid-thought. Scars and all, this family has been through it all - triumph, tragedy, public accolades and private hell.  Sure the tight script reveals all of this (and more), but these actors tell us wordlessly just how deep the pain and love is.  As great as they are as a company, though, they are individually amazing, each giving Tony-worthy performances.

Youngest brother Trip Wyeth, new generation Hollywood and a producer of a reality show, is played by Justin Kirk.  He is also the no nonsense voice of reason in a rising sea of hostility and family secrets revealed.  And even as we find out that he is the least regarded family member, Kirk manages to endear himself to us, with witty barbs and a certain dignity that keeps him from being that modern "cool bitchy" guy you might expect.  He is bitingly funny and, in act two especially, a strong presence.  Then there is the brilliant Judith Light as Aunt Silda, a woman long past her glory days as a Hollywood screen writer, who has found solace in the bottom of a bottle of bourbon.  Now recovering, she literally teeters around the room, perilously close to relapse, one argument, one terse comment, one hurtful gesture away from diving head first into the always present decanter set that she eyes hungrily.  Light could easily have made this role a blaring stereotype, but instead has given us subtle glimpses into the brave woman who is struggling underneath a pile of baggage, and has infused humor into her heartache.

Rachel Griffiths and Stacy Keach

Channing, Griffiths and Keach

Stacy Keach, a formidable physical presence, is convincing as both an aging former movie star and has-been politician.  His quiet, measured speech, coupled with a thoughtful detachment, reveals itself to be a thin veneer covering a man on the brink of collapse during a game changing explosion of a monologue in act two.  His distance from his family spills over into the audience, making the final moments of the play all the more shocking and powerful.  Baitz interpreter Rachel Griffiths (she starred in his TV series Brothers and Sisters for several seasons) is thoroughly at home in the cadences and nuances of Baitz' words.  As Brooke Wyeth, a daughter with a troubled history and a writing career that has, until recently, stalled, Griffiths' every movement, pause and inflection reveals pain, mistrust, shame and loss.  There is a lot of baggage that this character carries, and Ms. Griffiths addresses each and every bit of it.  Because there is so much there, it is to her credit that she never over does it.  Instead of a histrionic, all-over-the-map performance, she doles out the emotions of this complex woman with a control that slowly breaks down.  As she deteriorates before our eyes, we realize that the actress is completely lost inside the character.  Brava.

Stockard Channing as Polly Wyeth

As truly brilliant as the entire cast is, it is the once in a lifetime performance of Stockard Channing as matriarch Polly Wyeth that makes Other Desert Cities a don't miss theatrical event.  Every inch of her body and the complete depths of her considerable soul are on display here.  Hard as stone underneath an almost un-cracked veneer of Southern charm and Republican grace, Channing imbues this woman with just enough warmth that she isn't off putting, but also with enough "boozy bitch" self-righteousness to make you almost hate her.  She is funny, fierce and flawless.  It is a performance that ranks right up there with some of the greatest I have had the privilege to witness, and one that the theatre world will be talking about for years.

Channing and company are but five reasons to see Other Desert Cities.  And there is the brilliant script of Jon Robin Baitz and the tough, no holds barred direction of Joe Mantello. The thought-provoking plot and themes are what keep you pinned to your seat.  It is a dangerous roller coaster ride of a play, climaxing in a hairpin turn and dark tunnel you want to scream through at the very end of the play.  You will leave breathless and exhilarated.

(Photos by Joan Marcus)

NOTE: Rachel Griffiths' final performance will be March 4th.  Off-Broadway's original Brooke Wyeth, Elizabeth Marvel rejoins the company March 6th.

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  1. Great review!

    I LOVED this play! I have seen in 3 times and it was amazing each time. It has a balance of drama and comedy that can bring people to tears from both sorrow and laughter(the guy sitting next to us was crying through most of the play). The cast is brilliant and the audience feels for the characters because they become very real. I had the opportunity to see Liz Wisan fill in for Rachel and she was FANTASTIC! I had no idea it was her Broadway debut. This show deserves all the accolades it can. A well deserved standing ovation!

  2. I'm definitely the odd woman out on this one. While I enjoyed it, and thought the cast was terrific, it didn't feel very deep. It's a polished work but more John Grisham than John Updike, if you catch my drift. The plot twist is one that I've seen in movies, read in novels. I love nighttime soaps. I was a fan of Brothers and Sisters and Falcon Crest years before that. And that's what Other Desert Cities felt like, the trials and tribulations of the very, very very rich, white and powerful. It was like the best Brothers and Sisters episode ever! And I understand why it's popular. Who doesn't love getting absorbed in a big, juicy, gossipy family drama about people whose lives are nothing like ours? ;-)


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