Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Desert Cities Re-visit


Review of the Saturday, June 16 matinee performance at the Booth Theatre in New York City.  Starring Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach, Elizabeth Marvel, Thomas Sadoski and Judith Light.  Directed by Joe Mantello. 2 hours, 15 minutes including one intermission.  Closes today.

Grade: A

It is always great to see a long running show that is as fresh and intense in its final performances as it was when it first opened.  Such is the case with Other Desert Cities, the Tony-nominated play by Jon Robin Baitz, which I had the good fortune to revisit just yesterday, at its third to final performance.  It is just as intense and wickedly funny as it was when I first saw it several months ago.  In fact, in some ways, it is even more so than before.  That I knew how the play would end (or I thought so, anyway) actually only added to the experience.  Searching the first act for clues to the ultimate plot twist yielded me nothing in terms of plot revelations, but I did find some really exquisite acting moments from each actor in the show.  But the chief difference - and, actually, mostly an improvement - comes from the change in two of the actors from my first visit.

Let me just reiterate that I loved the play the first time I saw it and I still do.  What was great about the technical aspects of the show are still great.  What was excellent about Joe Mantello's direction remains just as excellent.  And with the addition of original cast members Elizabeth Marvel and Thomas Sadoski, one can see that Mantello's direction can be slightly altered to adjust for character interpretation, and it is even more apparent just how richly the characters are written by Baitz.  Both Ms. Marvel and Mr. Sadoski play their roles as the children of the Wyeth family pretty differently than their Broadway predecessors, Rachel Griffiths and Justin Kirk.

The chief, and most significant, change is in the family dynamic brought about by this casting change.  Under the care of Ms. Griffiths and Mr. Kirk, the Wyeth kids, Brooke and Trip, were much more introspective, willing only to be truly honest with each other when alone.  It was only when push (from the parents) came to shove (when the past came back to haunt them) that either of these siblings gathered the strength to fight for their place in the family and for the truth about their loss of their brother.  In effect, they drew strength from each other, and as a unit,  behaved much as their father, Lyman (Stacy Keach).  On the other hand, with Ms. Marvel and Mr. Sadoski, while they, too, gain strength and more honesty with each other, it is more a gathering of resources in order to combat their strong, willful and steely mother, Polly (Stockard Channing).  The irony here, which really adds to the dramatic layers of the story, is that in being somewhat stronger, they don't wait to be manipulated, they are ready and even attack first, and are, in effect, behaving like their mother.  What is great about that is that both dynamics are viable choices.  With Griffiths/Kirk, their much lower key way in act one makes the confrontations and reveals in act two more startling; with Marvel/Sadoski their more intense approach makes the explosiveness of act two even more intense, if less shocking.  The icing on this delicious family drama cake is that both brother/sister pairs manage to find temperance, forgiveness and humanity from their struggling Aunt Silda (Tony-winner Judith Light), which in turn informs the delicate balance between the sisterhood of Polly and Silda.  What remains true is that both casts shed light on an all too American family that is too strong for its own good and whose flaws cause a walking-on-eggshells difficult delicacy.  Families are only as strong as they think they are when they have to confront their weaknesses.

As much as I enjoyed Justin Kirk, I found Mr. Sadoski much more compelling and riveting.  Every time he was on stage, I found myself wanting to see what he was up to, whether he is delivering one of a few really great speeches, or standing in the background taking it all in.  His reactions, both outward and in introspection are sensational, his acting so real and effortless.  Ms. Marvel, who shows a much wider range of emotion than Ms. Griffiths' more subdued, fragile take on the character, verges occasionally on overdoing it.  Her facial expressions, in particular, are very "big and actor-ish."  And yet, just about everything about her performance rings true considering that her character has been on the brink for most of her life, and she is now fighting for her life - to be heard, to heal, to honor her lost brother.  The best thing about seeing the show twice, with different actors, is that they are all so good that I have two great memories, filled with different things to love and contemplate.  How often does one get that priviledge?

Interestingly, I don't think this huge change has changed the fundamental performances of the senior members of the Wyeth family.  Sure, their reactions to the "children" have been adjusted and are a bit more intense, the wonder is that neither Keach, Channing nor Light have changed their interpretation in the overall scheme of the play.  If they had, I think the play would be weakened instead of maintained or made stronger.  After all, Lyman is at heart a good man, who wants to do the right thing even in the face of profound tragedy; Polly is still a tower of cold strength who battles her own personal demons by making everyone around her stronger by the sheer force of her righteousness and will; and Silda is more heart and love than tragic and flawed by the alcohol she abuses just to cope.  These three are settled in their ways and built up a fortress of resolve around themselves to protect their family and survive.  Secrets and truths can destroy or elevate families, and the Wyeths know this all too well.

Mr. Keach continues to be a curious mix of submissiveness and inner strength as he struggles to keep the family balance.  Ms. Light mines the humor and pathos of a flawed, but essentially good woman - she earned that Tony, for sure.  And Ms. Channing is truly a marvel - a superb interpretation of a complex woman who you can like in one second and recoil from in horror the next.  That she manages to keep her family and the audience simultaneously at arms length AND in a near embrace is both tribute to the character as written and the skill of one of her generation's great stage actresses.

I have to say that this change in casting has made me appreciate this wonderful play all the more.  As a fan of Baitz's television program Brothers and Sisters, I really appreciate his uncanny ability to join political agenda with family values, flawed and perfect.  He creates interesting characters and familial hierarchies, but his best efforts - at least in the TV show and this play - are in the relationships of siblings, and in turn, their relationships with their parents.  Baitz lets us see people that probably aren't like ourselves in the larger sense, but allows us to relate to them in the all too human details.

(Photos by Joan Marcus)

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