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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Other Desert Cities
Walnut Street Theatre


Greg Wood, Susan Wilder, Ann Crumb, Matteo Scammell and Krista Apple
Other Desert Cities is a play that might seem too predictable at first. Playwright Jon Robin Baitz introduces us to a wealthy Southern California family, gives us a little background on the family, and quickly sets up some well-worn conflicts—parents versus children, Republicans versus Democrats—and a plot that involves dredging up some long-suppressed family secrets. We all know how this is going to play out, right?

Not quite. If the characters seem to fit stereotypes too conveniently (especially the parents who embody both Old Hollywood and old-line conservatism), part of the pleasure of seeing Other Desert Cities is watching those stereotypes exploded. True, the plot has a few too many contrivances, including a final revelation that probably would have been revealed much earlier in real life. But the depth of the characters and the snap of the dialogue make Other Desert Cities absorbing, and the Walnut Street Theatre's production crackles with tension and humor.

Meet the Wyeth family: father Lyman is a movie star turned politician, now retired; mother Polly is a patrician ex-screenwriter; daughter Brooke is an author with a breakdown and a broken marriage behind her; son Trip is a producer of reality TV; and Silda, Polly's sister, is just back from a stint in rehab and looking like she could be headed back there any minute now. But the specter of another family member hangs over the Wyeths: son Henry, a radical who took his own life a quarter century earlier after being involved in a deadly anti-government bombing. When Brooke announces she's about to publish a memoir dealing with Henry's life and death, the fireworks begin. Brooke sees her book as a way to exorcise the demons that have tormented her for years, but her parents see it as a guarantee of public humiliation—or something far, far worse.

Kate Galvin's measured direction allows each actor time in the spotlight, allowing the audience to sympathize with all sides of the issues. As Trip, Matteo Scammell is too laid back, lacking the energy to dominate his scenes, but the other actors more than make up for what's missing. Ann Crumb gives Silda a satisfyingly cynical air, while Susan Wilder plays Polly as stern and imperious without ever going over the top. Greg Wood's Lyman is full of toughness tempered by compassion. And Wood is at his most dynamic when that compassion is stretched to the breaking point; at the performance I attended, his angriest outburst was met by a gasp from the audience. Krista Apple gives Brooke a poignant fragility and a heartening resolve: she makes you root for Brooke in her determination to prove her own strength and worth. And watching Apple perform Brooke's transformation into a composed, dignified echo of her mother in the show's epilogue is one of the production's nicest touches.

Todd Edward Ivins' sleek set design, featuring high roof beams that are as exposed as the Wyeths' emotions will eventually be, gives the show an added stroke of elegance.

Other Desert Cities runs through March 2, 2014, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $10 $85, with premium tickets available for $175, and are available online at www.WalnutStreetTheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by phone (800) 982-2787.


Photo: Mark Garvin


-- Tim Dunleavy



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