Regional Reviews: Las Vegas
Other Desert Cities
Well-to-do parents Polly and Lyman Wyeth are old-school southern California Republicans (old friends, in fact, of Nancy and "Ronnie"). Lyman himself is reminiscent of Reagan, Eastwood, and Schwarzeneggera retired big-screen gunslinger turned politician, ambassador, GOP Chair, and spokesman for the California Wine Boardand Polly is a Nancy-like figure who gave up screenwriting to support her husband's political ambitions. Some years ago, however, the power couple abruptly abandoned their Hollywood social circle in favor of the seclusion of Palm Springs, where they have become uncharacteristically reclusive.
Daughter Brooke, an East Coast novelist who recently suffered a severe bout of depression combined with writer's block, is far to their left on the political spectrum. Her younger brother Trip, a reality TV producer, is happily self-serving and politically agnostic. It is Christmas, a time when adult children are expected to visit their parents, even if they know the visit will quickly reignite old battles. Polly's sister and ex-writing partner Sildafresh from a stint in rehabis only too happy to fan the flames. And so the scorching begins.
The plot turns on a tragic event that took place some 15 or so years earlier and was seemingly triggered by the family's political divide. Brooke has finally overcome her depression and writer's block by writing a tell-all memoir which, when published, will revive the media's interest in that not-quite-forgotten episode, and bring the family under renewed scrutiny. It may also lead to a permanent schism between her and her parents. As the tension mounts, Brooke wonders whether she should have skipped the homecoming, and instead followed the highway sign pointing to "Other Desert Cities."
The magic of Baitz's play is his ability to depict the deep waters running below the surface turbulence of this troubled family. After the first few scenes, we may think we know the characters, only to discover later that things may not be exactly as they seem. And even as the characters bicker and accuse, their bitter repartee is infused with irresistible humor. Add to this an elegant plot twist, and the play succeeds at every level.
Eric A. Koger's set design perfectly invokes Palm Springs in the early 2000s, with soft beige furnishings, exposed brick and stone walls (painted beige, of course), sliding glass doors giving us a glimpse of the sunny patio and swimming pool, and a gas fireplace that occupies a clean modernistic slash in the living room wall, accompanied by useless but atmospheric fireplace tools. Conspicuous photos of the Wyeths' celebrity friends adorn the walls. It's easy to imagine the golf course and tennis court just steps from the front door.
With a terrific script and set design, one expects A Public Fit to work its usual magic, but alas, this production is a rare stumble by this wonderful company. The cast is made up of veteran actors who have done fine work in other productions, but here they appear awkward and amateurish. As Trip, Nick Huff achieves the closest thing to naturalism, but even he overplays the kid-brother schtick; it's hard to believe he's grown-up enough to produce a successful television show (even if it is reality TV). As Brooke, Rozanne Sher is convincing only in the final moments, when she addresses the audience directly. Charlene Sher (Rozanne's real life mother) captures Polly's bitchiness, but she is all surface; there is no hint of the mother's beating heart.
What went wrong? The fault probably lies with director Mark Gorman. Even though the characters are mostly lounging at home, they have very little business to occupy them. As a result, they tend to "stand and deliver" their lines in an unnatural way. That's not how people talk, and only occasionally how they fight. Frankly, it's a huge relief when Polly wraps a present and Trip rolls a joint. The actors also seem to have little grasp of their characters' internal lives. When Lyman is not in the center of the action, actor Brad Hoover stares into the fireplace, but gives no hint of the father's inner conflict.
A Public Fit has a history of strong productions guided by smart, sensitive, and precise direction. With Other Desert Cities, it simply took a wrong turn.
Other Desert Cities, through May 20, 2018 (Thursdays - Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays-Sundays at 2 pm) at The Usual Place, 100 S. Maryland Parkway, Las Vegas NV. For tickets ($30 general admission, $25 students and seniors) or other information, go to www.apublicfit.com.