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Other Desert Cities
It’s Christmas, 2004. Assembled at the elegant Palm Springs home of Polly and Lyman Wyeth, a Reagan-like couple, are their adult children Brooke and Trip as well as Polly’s dipsomaniac sister Silda Grauman.
It’s Brooke’s first visit in six years. Living on the East Coast she has a great disdain for all things Californian, especially television which she does not watch. Her Left Coast brother, the well-named Trip, is a writer/producer of reality television shows and master of one-liners. Their affection for one another is palpable; so is their irritable discord. The other sibling duo, Silda and Polly, are inextricably bound together by need and guilt. Lyman, a Republican politician who used to be an actor, does his best to rise above the fray.
This not-so-happy, highly articulate, and often witty family is deeply affected by the loss of Polly and Lyman’s other son, Henry, a radical. Brooke, who claims to have recovered from the nervous breakdown that felled her has brought to the family get-together the manuscript of her autobiography, an expose of what she perceives to be the truth. Instead, it leads to revelations Polly and Lyman would have preferred to have left buried.
Think of a grenade lobbed into the genteel living quarters of upper middle class Jews who pass for gentiles. Could their surname, Wyeth, be more WASP? Their move to Palm Springs was designed to leave behind the dark family secret that which they wished were not known.
By all accounts the New York productions of Other Desert Cities were blessed with an outstanding ensemble cast each member of which brought equal force to their role. Arena Stage is less fortunate. Not all the voices can be heard all the time. This is of course mainly due to the Fichandler, Arena’s theatre-in-the-round,but it is also true that some of the actors articulate better than others.
As the elegant and acerbic Polly Wyeth, friend of Nancy Reagan, Helen Carey gives a perfect performance. Well-known and much appreciated by Washington audiences is Carey’s range – from O’Neill to Sondheim to Baitz. Not one word of her dialogue is missed, no matter where you are sitting. Her mannerisms and movement are as articulate as her inflection. She nails it all every time. As her husband Lyman, Larry Bryggman brings out his Ronald Reagan-like actor/politician who can fake it just as easily as he can speak truth.
Fortunately Martha Hackett’s Silda, Polly’s dipsomaniac sister and dependent, is not a conventional drunk. Her words may hurt but at no time does she stagger around the stage. On the contrary, she appears to be in full control of her faculties even when napping which she does for much of an act.
As Trip, Scott Drummond narrowly avoids caricature. He is discernably laid back but not always. His anger is quite startling. Emily Donahoe’s Brooke, apart from sometimes being inaudible, lacks the intelligent and emotional depth of the other characters. She’s wimpy rather than pitiable or even interesting.
Although the performance this reviewer attended seemed to run slow, (two hours and fifteen minutes as opposed to two hours as stated in the program), Kyle Donnelly’s direction discloses the play’s nuances with conviction. The set by Kate Edmunds, unobtrusively lit by Nancy Schertler, conveys affluence and, deceptively, a cool calm. Nan Cibula-Jenkins costumes, particularly for Helen Carey’s Polly Wyeth, admirably delineate each character’s personality.
What lingers in the mind after seeing Other Desert Cities, apart from Helen Carey’s superb performance, is the author’s facility with words, his understanding of the complexities of family and how the truth can be hard to take. That makes for a very interesting and entertaining evening.