Other Desert Cities
It's Christmas Eve 2004 and Brooke (Tracy Michelle Arnold) is a fortyish writer about to publish her second book, which we soon learn is a memoir exposing the circumstances around her older brother's suicide some thirty years earlier following a tragic act of left-wing political violence in which he was complicit, and the possible culpability of her right-wing parents in provoking his death. She surprises the family with the news of this subject, giving them two copies of the manuscript which will be published in serialized form in The New Yorker just two months hence. The parents, Lyman (Chelcie Ross) and Polly (Deanna Dunagan), are a former Hollywood leading man and screenwriter who became active in Republican politics and are close friends of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Though retired from both show business and politics, they are devastated at the idea of their family tragedy being drudged up again and particularly at the way Brooke has portrayed them as heartless in their treatment of her late brother.
This situation, which is set up in the first act and played out into the second act, appears to have a pair of big themes. The first is the psychic damage inflicted by a refusal to properly acknowledge and grieve the brother's death. Did this avoidance or denial lead to cold relationships within the family and to Brooke's recent battle with severe depression? The other issue is the tension between artists and the impact of their art of the lives of the real people who inspire it. We're told the book is the best thing Brooke has ever written, yet her mother Polly calls it a work of fictionnot an accurate memoir but a hatchet job constructed from Brooke's perspective together with lies secretly supplied by Polly's sister Silda (Linda Kimbrough). Should family loyalty and right to privacy trump the artist's ability to create a moving narrative? Both themes are worthy of explanation, though in the first act author Jon Robin Baitz doesn't give us enough information to feel invested in or supportive of either side. Halfway through the second act, there's a twist that I won't spoil here that undercuts the themes he establishes in the first act. The final takeaway of the play is something rather different than we were expecting.
What Baitz does give us throughout, though, is a frequently funny look into a fascinating segment of our societythe very privileged A-listers of a part of Hollywood and political royalty living in that beautiful, largely affluent but isolated community of Palm Springs. Patriarch Lyman Wyeth as played by Ross is a rather Charlton Heston-esque figurea veteran of heroic roles in big movies who became involved in politics. Ross gives him an essential kindness even with his sense of moral absolutism. Polly is delightfully played in full Nancy Reagan-esque fashion by Deanna Dunagan, who's had some luck playing sharp-tongued, controlling matriarchs (her Tony-Award winning role in August: Osage County). As Polly's sister and former screenwriting partner, the struggling-in-recovery from alcoholism Silda, Linda Kimbrough contributes handily with quick put downs and comic relief. Ms. Arnold is suitably earnest and distraught as Brooke, and John Hoogenakker accomplishes the thankless task of giving a completely organic and textured performance as the play's least colorful, almost bland character. His Trip avoids taking sides or creating waves until pushed into making a stand, which Hoogenakker delivers convincingly.
Henry Wishcamper's direction navigates smoothly between the comic and dramatic scenes of the play, though the general pacing and chemistry of the cast seemed just a little ragged on opening night.
Part of the fun of visiting Palm Springs is seeing the mid-20th century homes, and set designer Thomas Lynch has given us a great one to admire, complete with a west-facing picture window for a sunset and mountain view. The living room seems too big or too sparsely furnished on the Goodman's huge Albert stage, though. The unmiked actors are sometimes hard to understand and the house just generally feels too big for this play. Richard Woodbury, who also did the sound design, has contributed an appealing musical score that adds a sense of sophistication and glamour.
Even with the misdirection, we're left with an intriguing exploration of this segment of society. These old-line Republicans of old Hollywood, are as "retro" themselves as the design of their homes, living amidst memories of the mid-century celebrities who made the town famous and for whom streets are named. As much as Baitz's political sympathies are shown to be on the lefthis funniest zingers come of the expense of the GOPhe shows some empathy for these conservatives as well. Though Other Desert Cities is on some levels frustrating in its mishmash of themes, the setting and colorful characters so competently played make it worthwhile in total.
Other Desert Cities will play through February 17, 2013, in the Goodman's Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago. For ticket information, visit www.goodmantheatre.org, call 312-443-3800 or visit the box office.