Saturday, June 7, 2014

Other Desert Cities (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I'm going to pontificate a bit with this review, out of a desire to be fair. Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz and its production at the International City Theatre in Long Beach deserves a nuanced explanation of my reaction to it.

A few words of explanation. The idea of the "well made play" really dates back to the 1940s and 50s, akin in many ways to that of the "three act structure" of screenplays heralded by Syd Field. It has much to recommend it when  handled properly, but does tend to end up with a bit too much formula, a little too much playing it safe. Other Desert Cities has nearly all the benefits but several of the possible drawbacks of the "well made play." Everything is foreshadowed, sometimes with great subtlety. No character is anything like a "walk on." It builds to a logical climax, in terms of a long-held family secret finally being revealed to a younger generation. No immediately easy answers. Everyone has a valid point of view explored in the play. No one functions as voice of the playwright, offering The Answer to questions asked. All well and good. Puts it well above many a work I've seen.

What is less good--on the nose dialogue. Part of the tension between the characters is supposed to be politics, liberal young versus conservative old, against the backdrop of 2004 and the Iraqi War. Yet instead of specific ideas, or human reaction between people who disagree fiercely yet remain permanently entwined, we get cliches. Formulaic talking points. Along with this goes name-dropping, used frankly as a short cut. For example, near the end of the play Polly Wyeth (Suzanne Ford) tries to explain herself by explaining why she has reacted to a tragedy the way she has, and gives credit to "Nancy" who has been a "mentor" to her. Such a name-dropping was distracting, like the constant mention of specific politicians or movie stars. In fact much of the play neatly avoided the real meat of the whole drama, in favor of little lectures that all often came across as preaching. The ultimate proof of this is a flaw in the whole structure--namely the climax of the whole play belonged at the end of Act One.

When The Secret comes out, the fallout from that took up a few minutes at most. It should have taken much much more. Rather than portray the actual consequences of this revelation--keeping a secret which emotionally maimed someone, nearly leading them to self-destruction--we got the daughter Brooke (Ann Noble) throwing the pages of her book and crying. No. Forgiveness for something like that should never, ever be so very cheap. The speechifying and avoidance of this story's bloody, weeping heart seriously weaken a play that for the most part shows fine ambition and some genuine skill at dialogue as well as world creation.

But no play is perfect. Actors and directors for many many decades have had to overcome problems with scripts. Yes, even Shakespeare (one reason why Richard III to give a notorious example needs serious editing). And let us give credit to the cast for presence, for emotional truth, for approaching their roles with skill. Regarding this I have to single out Blake Anthony Edwards as Trip Wyeth, the youngest member of the family while arguably the most mature. He had in many ways the plum role, because he's the character with no political axe to grind. So all his dialogue and motivations remained personal.

Yet at the same time I must fault the cast for often not diving into these characters as deeply as the drama of their situation seems to demand. Given how universal this showed up in the production, the responsibility seems to me must lie with director caryn desai. I kept seeing surface emotions, surface actions, not the raw pain and hopes and mixed feelings to make me care very much about what was happening. I felt interested. I didn't dislike the characters. But frankly, I think the story pretty much begged for us to end up hating each one of them sooner or later--and maybe loving each a little bit throughout. To achieve that, though, they'd need to bleed a lot more of their souls onto the stage. Not that anyone couldn't act! Far from it! Nicholas Horman as patriarch Lyman Wyeth and Eileeen T'Kaye as his sister-in-law (and family black sheep) both bring presence and focus to their roles--no small thing, either one--and it says much that I believed in them, every single one of them.

But--I didn't care that much. Sooner or later I cared for a few moments here and there. Not throughout.

The story essentially deals with Brooke coming home to her parents' home for the first time in six years. She's in the midst of a divorce, following a near-nervous breakdown in which she suffered an extreme episode of depression. (If this marriage was intended as a red herring about the real story, it didn't work as one.) When she was sick, her family had rallied to her side. Now she's written a new book. She's afraid how they will react to it, because the one subject never mentioned is her elder brother Henry--Brooke's best friend who committed suicide when she was a teenager. That loss left a wound in her soul, and now her book is about that loss. This book threatens to tear the house of Wyeth apart, from her relentlessly supportive but remote father to her constantly pushing mother.

Most would probably agree this sounds like the stuff of a good play. Nor can I honestly call the production a bad one. What I can say is that both script and production have not dug in to find the essence of the drama, cut open the body of these characters' lives to crack open the bone and reveal the marrow within. Playwright, director and actors have done workmanlike jobs, using above average skills and genuine talent, yet in the end they all played it safe. And the best theatre, the most fantastic and insightful theatre, is always dangerous.

Other Desert Cities runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., June 6 through June 29.  International City Theatre is located in the Long Beach Performing Arts Center at 300 E. Ocean Blvd. in Long Beach, CA 90802. For reservations and information, call the ICT Box Office at 562-436-4610 or

No comments: