New York Theater: Other Desert Cities
Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz,
Directed by Joe Mantello,
A Lincoln Center Theater production,
Booth Theatre, 225 West 45th St, NY
Jan 25th, 2012
New York, NY: This play was the fifth production I saw in my New-York-one-week-seven-play marathon. Amidst some really great theatre, this was the show that I found the most compelling. The story was gripping and the characters were fully developed and utterly believable.
Although I enjoy all the varied theatrical genres, my favorite form of play is one with a strong dramatic script where stakes are high and the arc of evolution of the characters is meaningful. I thus found it especially interesting to compare the emotional impact of the two dramas I saw back to back, namely Seminar and Other Desert Cities. Both plays dealt, albeit from different perspectives, with the way the creative act of writing and the written product, book or story, impacts both writer and reader. Both plays had first class acting and great production values, set, lighting, costumes etc but of the two plays, only Other Desert Cities had the "wow" factor for me; getting me right in the guts. I think the difference lies in the scripts.
Other Desert Cities is a family drama. It is Christmas Eve, 2004. The Wyeths, Lyman (Stacey Keach), and Polly (Stockard Channing) have retired from public life to a home in Palm Springs. Lyman, ex-movie star and retired ambassador, was politically active in the Republican party. Polly, ex-screen-writer, in the manner of her friend, Nancy Reagan consistently supports and promotes Lyman and the conservative agenda regardless. Also living in uneasy co-existence with the Wyeth's in their gorgeous desert home is Polly's alcoholic sister, Silda (Judith Light). The Wyeth's adult children have come to visit for Christmas. Trip (Justin Kirk), is producer of a popular TV courtroom reality show. Brooke (Rachel Griffiths), the Wyeth's daughter, home for the first time in 6 years, has brought with her a copy of her memoir that is about to be published. We learn that this memoir will resurrect memories of a family tragedy involving the older son, Henry. Both the Wyeth parents warn that publication of this book will destroy the family. The stakes are high and alliances form and shatter as the story of Henry is slowly revealed. The tension just does not let up. Each character is fully developed and brilliantly acted. Their passions, fears, and motivations emerge with clarity and are completely believable. I was fully engaged throughout.
I loved the set - a sitting room of a Palm Springs home, decorated in a beige and cream palette looking elegant yet comfortable, complete with stone wall and a functional fire-pit. I do have one quibble with the set though although the problem rests equally with the blocking. I had a great (and expensive) seat, front row centre in the Mezzanine but without leaning completely forward I could not see the front of the stage and therefore anything that occurred on or around the downstage ottoman. All around me and in the rows behind, there was a lot of grumbling as we waited for the show to start as others also complained that they could not see the downstage area. But listening to this pre-show conversation I thought to myself that there was no way that an experienced director would block positions that were invisible to such a large part of the audience. So I was surprised that is what happened. I really wish set designers and directors would experiment by sitting in a variety of locations and see how frustrating a poor sight line can be.
Apart from the sight line problem, this was a most satisfying evening of theatre. Other Desert Cities is drama at its best.