Other Desert Cities, by Jon Robin Baitz. Directed by Jennifer Van Iderstyne. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Rick Reed, Pat Brady, Ellen Cribbs, James Gavin, Patti Noble; photo: provided
""Lots of locked doors in our dollshouse."
The family dynamics in a power family whose politics differ and whose interests don't reflect one another's moral judgements is at the heart of this excellent theater piece, a drama with the human comedy of love and error leading the way to honest appreciation of other values. The Schenectady Civic Players production brings fine excellent actors under the crystal clear direction of a woman who can touch the mind and the heart simultaneously through her carefully constructed physical stage images results in a two-and-a-half hours experience that is so very worthwhile.
Baitz's play (his first on Broadway - nominated for numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize)is so well constructed that one has to wonder how much influence his first production had on the final piece. His former lover, Joe Mantello, directed the work and the close relationship may have ultimately given the director more power than usual in the shaping of the work. The 2011 cast included Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach, Judith Light, Rachel Griffiths and Tom Sadoski (Linda Lavin and Elizabeth Marvel were also in the off-Broadway start-up of the play).
In brief this is the plot: Brooke Wyeth has written a memoir about her brother, Henry, who committed suicide years before. A successful writer with a marriage and mental breakdown behind her, she visits her family for Christmas at their Palm Springs home. Her mother and her aunt have been successful screen-writers for MGM, her father both an agent and an actor. Her younger brother Trip is also on hand. When the family learns the subject of Brooke's book there is a maddening mixture of reactions including outrage, fear, horror, and amusement. What follows is the trip to publication and its aftermath.
Though this sounds slight it is truly a devastating journey through the hallways of truth and trust. At the end of Act One it would seem that Baitz has exhausted all possibilities for this trip down memory lane, but the second act has more revelations and more drama than might be expected. It is an extremely interesting, well-written play.
Rick Reed, Pat Brady; photo: provided
Ellen Cribbs; photo: provided
I found the first fifteen minutes of the performance a bit dreary and hard to get into, but as the company began to be more secure in their characters the play developed beautifully and the actors assumed greater control of their roles. In the end I thought them to be perfect for their roles and very much in command.
Brooke Wyeth was played by Ellen Cribbs whose emotional roller-coaster ride was an amazing one to witness. She controlled the stage even when other actors were having their key moments; she saw to it that her central character remained central throughout.
As her mother, Polly, Pat Brady was a stronghold of power and control, holding secrets securely until the moment when only revealing them would have the desired effect. This diminutive actress is a powerhouse on stage, dwarfing even her most consistent and strong co-players. I really thought she turned the play on its ear, in all the best ways.
Her husband was played with a rare sense of humility and emotional integrity by Rick Reed. Here is an actor who can move an audience with an embrace or with a line about inability to confront. A beautiful, sensitive performance indeed.
Polly's sister (and Brooke's back-stairs collaborator)Silda Grauman was played with sensitive beauty by Patti Noble. A character too often relegated to the background in this family drama, she was brought to vivid life by the actress. James Gavin played younger brother Trip with the least emotional effect of the company, yet even his big blow-up scene with his sister had clout and managed effect. Gavin was fine in the role, though he sometimes gobbled up final syllables of sentences.
Director Jennifer Van Iderstyne has done a beautiful job with this play. Taking larger-than-life characters and making them ultimately human and fallible is no easy task, and in this play she has done exactly that. Robin MacDuffie's set is lovely, but I thought the lighting often left a lot of things and people in the dark. A beautiful desert scrim was never properly lit and reflected no changes in the time of day. Joseph Fava's costumes were smart and right for the characters.
I applaud this company for taking on such an interesting and difficult play and making it work so wonderfully. The run is a short one, so I urge you to find your way to the theater and find a few revelations of your own once you get there.
Other Desert Cities plays at the Schenectady Civic Players, 12 South Church Street, Schenectady, NY, through March 25. For information and tickets go to www.civicplayers.org, or call 518-382-2081.