Other Desert Cities

By Philip Pearce

POLITICAL RIVALRIES and family secrets meet and collide in Other Desert Cities, which opened last weekend at Paper Wing Theatre on Hoffman in Monterey.

Jon Robin Baitz’s Tony-nominated domestic drama starts from the same  premise as A. R. Gurney’s The Cocktail Hour. A writer returns to the family homestead to confront parents and siblings with a forthcoming work that threatens to hang out some dirty linen the family would rather not have aired.

Gurney turns the conflict into wry New England satire. Baitz uses it to expose dark and ugly truths about a Southern California family.

Angry leftwing novelist Brooke Wyeth flies in from the East for Christmas Eve at the family home in Palm Springs. She announces she’s about to publish not a novel this time but a family memoir. The news starts menacing thunder claps in a household we already sense harbors some hidden storms of resentment and secrecy.  We don’t know the half of it.

Matriarch Polly is a powerful Republican functionary who has modeled her controlled and controlling life style on her idol, Nancy Reagan. More genial and conciliatory, her husband Lyman still watches reruns of old Hollywood westerns he starred in before becoming a Reagan-era ambassador. Brooke’s brother Trip is the jokey and shallow producer of a pretentious LA television show. While Trip straddles the fence, Polly and Lyman agree, with varying degrees of conviction, that the memoir had better not deal with the scandalous suicide of their rebellious, drug-addicted firstborn son Henry. Brooke’s only strong ally in the battle is her raddled recovering-alcoholic Aunt Silda.

As the family war explodes and rages, the ghost of Henry triggers ugly revelations about every one of them and produces a climax that combines family guilt and political rivalries in a compelling final revelation.

The cast act with unflagging energy.

As Brooke, who breaks into the shaky stability of her family’s Christmas Eve, Mindy Whitfield is focused and eloquent, her rough and ready wardrobe a sharp contrast to the haute couture of her mother Polly. Carrie Collier acts the role with gusto, so controlled and
organized you feel the room temperature drop every time she strides in wearing another classy outfit and running a hand through her ice-maiden blonde hair.  As husband Lyman, Keith Decker skillfully offers a portrait of the nervously upbeat affability of a man
struggling to be the ambassador between warring family factions. Neither he nor his son Trip (a likeable but feckless Taylor Landers) is a match for either his spouse’s or his daughter’s chutzpah and drive.

But then there’s the family’s screwed up but dauntless house guest, Polly’s sister Silda.  Teresa Del Piero does a powerful job in a complex characterization. Teetering dangerously on the edge of a return to alcoholism she is nevertheless the third in the play’s trio
of powerful females and she gets the tricky blend just right. She and Collier exchange some of the more effective vocal barbs in a script which offers some only fair-to-middling one liners as it builds up a complex back story and forward action.

If the acting and production have a weakness it is, paradoxically, that it’s too emphatic.  From start to finish, the prevailing mood is one of anger, but this cast and director rely so repeatedly on shouting that the unchanging noise level gets monotonous. There are
other ways besides full volume for conveying rage and frustration and they don’t get used.

Family dysfunction is a well-worn theme in modern theater, but Baitz’s play rises above cliché with a plot that requires us, the audience, to reassess and rethink.  Don’t place your bets too early on who are the goodies and who the baddies in a script where nobody comes through spotless and triumphant.  It’s worth a visit to Paper Wing’s Hoffman Avenue playhouse.

Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through March 26th.