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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Other Desert Cities and
An Evening with Groucho at ACT Theatre

Also see David's review of Somewhere in Time and interview with Ken Davenport


Marya Sea Kaminski, Aaron Blakely,
Pamela Reed, Lori Larsen

Photo by Chris Bennion
Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities, a 2012 Tony Award nominee and Pulitzer Prize finalist, receives an exceptionally solid mounting under Victor Pappas' sensitive direction at ACT Theatre. Baitz is a master at weaving a tale of dysfunctional families, as anyone who was a fan of ABC's "Brothers and Sisters" series, which he created and wrote many episodes for, knows. The Wyeths of Other Desert Cities, however, are less likable than the Walkers of "Brothers and Sisters," with relationships often as arid as Palm Springs, where the family resides.

Polly and Lyman Wyeth, their daughter Brooke, son Trip, and Polly's recently out of Rehab sister Silda, are failing all attempts to affect a merry Little Christmas together at their sleek yet chilly feeling digs in Palm Springs. The senior Wyeths are staunch old-line Hollywood republicans, he a veteran B movie star, she, along with sometimes collaborator Silda, a screenwriter. Their son Trip pens a reality show, while daughter Brooke has come bearing a most unwelcome holiday gift, a searing, about to be published family memoir focusing on her late brother (a '70s radical implicated in a bombing) and her parents' shortcomings, which led her to a near suicide. Polly reads the book and is predictably outraged; Lyman refuses to, trying to keep the peace. Silda, who has informed and influenced much of Brooke's storytelling, supplies Elaine Stritch-like observations to cloud her own failings. Brooke can't understand why her parents can't see the love underneath her tell-all, and Trip tries to stay on everyone's good side, all the while wishing he were back in Hollywood at work.

Baitz's writing soars when the real family skeletons are unearthed, and he provides an epilogue that both soothes and satisfies, though it is not quite a Hollywood happy ending.

Heading the fine ensemble cast as Polly and Lyman are veteran Hollywood actors Pamela Reed and Kevin Tighe. Reed skillfully etches a woman whose façade is as dry as any martini, concealing her deep pain at her failings with her family. Tighe is genuinely moving as a Reagan-esque Hollywood vet who acted his way into the right-wing political arena, but was less skilled in the role of parent. As the sly and manipulative Silda, Lori Larsen is pitch perfect, savoring Baitz's comic zinger lines, but never grand-standing in the role. Marya Sea Kaminski navigates the complex role of Brooke with power and compassion, and Aaron Blakely quietly steals many of his scenes, playing Trip with unaffected charm and warmth, befitting Baitz's most sympathetic character.

Scenic designer Robert Dahlstrom perfectly envisions the Wyeth home with a sleek, expensive and chilly décor that no fireplace could hope to warm up, and Frances Kenny's costumes create the right air of casual chic that suits the characters.

Other Desert Cities may be Baitz's best play to date, and one which seems ripe for a crackling Hollywood or cable film adaptation.


An Evening with Groucho, playing in the cozy confines of ACT's Bullitt Cabaret space, is exactly what the title suggests. Veteran Groucho Marx impersonator Frank Ferrante, handpicked by Marx's son Arthur, offers his own sassy, and surprisingly warm hearted look at the comic legend. Based on the enjoyment of an opening night audience that spanned from children to seniors, Groucho Marx, Ferrante, smoothly directed by Dreya Webber, remembers him both wisely and well.

In just under two hours, Ferrante conjures up the naughty but nice Mr. Marx, in both song and story. He synopsizes how he and his brothers went from Vaudeville to Broadway to film, and then his solo final act as the TV host of the quintessential comic quiz show, "You Bet Your Life." Ferrante starts the show as himself, then, before our eyes, transforms, painted in mustache and all, into a Groucho who cajoles and harasses, but never humiliates members of the audience.

There are warm moments aplenty, especially as Groucho recalls his veteran comedic foil, Margaret Dumont. Ferrante has an especially good time playing off his new show pianist Mark Rabe. Rabe, a familiar performer and musician in Seattle, affects a somewhat stuffy and effete character for Ferrante (who refers to him as "Rabe" rather in the manner one would refer to a house pet) to play off of, and the pair really spark. Groucho's greatest songs such as "Hello, I Must Be Going," "Hurray for Captain Spaulding" and "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady" are all buoyantly revived, as is "Dr. Hackenbush," a nifty number deleted from the final print of the Marx Brothers film A Day at the Races. And we even get glimpses of a darker Marx, as he touches on his contempt for M-G-M studio chief, who, by cost-cutting, hastened the decline in quality of the Marx's latter films.

The show poignantly concludes with a story told to Ferrante by Groucho's longtime announcer George Fenneman, regarding his last visit with the star shortly before his death at age 87. Somehow, with blithe spirit of Ferrante around, it hardly seems we've lost Groucho at all. Hurray, hurray, hurray!

Other Desert Cities runs through June 30, 2013, in the Falls Theatre, and An Evening with Groucho is in the Bullitt Cabaret through June 30th as well. ACT Theatre is located at 700 Union Street at 7th Avenue, downtown Seattle. For more show information go to www.acttheatre.org.



- David Edward Hughes



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