Other Desert Cities
But to present-day audiences, the play suffers from a long dry stretch in the middle, like any desert journey. And what should be the most meaningful part, unfortunately, is also that exasperating mid-section.
Playwright Jon Robin Baitz hits the nail on the head, with the intractable forces of Fox News and all their opponents, clashing through the finger-puppets of his characters. But in the beginning the characters blossom and bloom. And an hour later, the end of the play is just about dynamite. But you'll crawl through a lot of Palm Springs sand to get from here to there.
Sorry to say, though, the end only turns brilliant thanks to an Awful Secret that has almost nothing to do with anything that's come before. And it's just a shame to watch great performers like Dee Hoty and Anderson Matthews (as the parents) striking poses till the (virtually irrelevant) Truth Is Revealed.
But, the moment the home stretch comes into view, watch out: Hoty and Matthews become like two million-dollar racehorses, galloping toward the finish line, all fury and muscle and gleam.
The desert home setting is absolutely stunningset designer Michael Ganio steals the show with a forced-perspective roof-line, in a mid-century-modern dwelling that could have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, in collaboration with film designer Ken Adams.
But, as gorgeous as the Wyeth family home is, the dramatic roof-line overhead only begins to suggest the forced perspectives of a pair of very arch, conservative parents, and most of the left-leaning family that surrounds them for Christmas, 2004.
It almost seems like ancient Greek theater, in that long, troublesome middle sectionone actor hits a mark and delivers an impassioned monologue, and then it's somebody else's turn to (figuratively) beat their chest and pull their hair in response. You could say it's a parallel between two great civilizations, in that rhetorical style, but you'd be on thin ice. (Artistic Director Steven Woolf directs here.)
Celeste Ciulla is a kind but sometimes overbearing liberal daughter, and Alex Hanna is appealing as the grown son: a Hollywood producer who churns out a formulaic courtroom "reality" TV show. In spite of that particular media infraction, he seems to exist more honestly in the world than any of the others, thanks to a wry, natural attitude. And Glynis Bell is perfectly good as Ms. Hoty's wacky, idealistic sister, in this traditional family-fight story.
Greater family-fight stories include The Lion In Winter and Death Of A Salesman. Events and trends shoved each of their characters heads into dark sewer water again and again. Here, the hopelessness is a mile wide, but only an inch deepimmersing us in a pop-cultural cesspool, but only up to our heels.
Anderson Matthews scores the greatest dramatic triumph, sinking his teeth into absolute tragedy near the end, which is undeniably stunning. But most of the rest of the show is too coy, too pat, too pandering, and too cynical. These characters (just like a lot of us) need to turn off the TV and start having real lives of their own.
And maybe that's the "meta-message" here: in our proud ideologies, we are now fully prisoners of television, down to our core beliefs. And those beliefs are just commodities to be endorsed by celebrity talking heads. Only a TV producer like the son (Mr. Hanna) is capable of making out what's really going on. Too bad the playwright never gives him the tools to fix a problem created by other media producers.
Even just a hammer through a flat-screen would be a welcomed start.
Through March 9, 2014, on the Browning Mainstage at the Loretto-Hilton theatre, on the campus of Webster University (130 Edgar Rd.). For more information visit www.repstl.org.
Cast (in speaking order)