OTHER DESERT CITIES

Posted: August 12, 2013 in Uncategorized

In this day and age, — a time period that has been shaped by war, recession, massive unemployment, corporate and banking scandals, as well as by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement that brought so much attention to the existing and growing economic disparity between the 1% economic elite and the 99% rest of us, — it is difficult to identify with, or have any empathy for, the characters in a play like Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities,” the Pulitzer Prize nominated living room drama that premiered on Broadway in 2011, and which is now playing at Seattle’s very own ACT.

Set in Palm Springs, CA on Christmas Eve, 2004, Other Desert Cities, brings Seattle audiences into the home of “Polly and Lyman Wyeth” (played respectively by Pamela Reed and Kevin Tighe), a wealthy, ‘old-guard, Hollywood B-list’’ couple, now in their golden years, and who used to hobnob with the likes of Ronald and Nancy Reagan back in their heyday.

The couple is joined by their two children: their TV-show producing son “Trip” (played by Aaron Blakely), and their liberal daughter “Brooke” (played by Marya Sea Kaminski). Brooke lives in New York and hasn’t visited her parents’ home in several years.  She has just emerged out of a severe depression, and has written a memoir that threatens to upset her parents and destroy their relationship forever.  Also rounding out the family is the very funny, recovering alcoholic, liberal aunt “Silda” (played by Lori Larsen); Silda is Polly’s sister and the two of them used to have a show together many years ago.

So on one level, it is hard to even want to care about these characters from such privileged background in times like these. And it can be even more difficult to relate to them: how many senators, TV producers, successful authors, and Hollywood actors and actresses do most of us typically interact with on a given day? But this is exactly what the playwright expects audiences to do; and he succeeds in his venture, for the most part, as he slowly unravels a story in which things are not exactly as they appear to be.

Further rendering Other Desert Cities potentially disengaging to audiences, in addition to the heavy layer of political rhetoric that infuses it, are the lofty questions it attempts to contemplate regarding the conflict that can arise between the making and sharing of ‘art’ versus the sanctity of privacy and personal relationships, between personal freedom of expression and social/familial loyalty.

In a time of stagnant wages, foreclosures, bankruptcies, lost pensions, high unemployment, crippling debt, uninsured sick, and weakened unions, there is quite a barrier to breach between the preoccupations of the Wyeth family and those of the 99%, making the playwrights task to engage audiences all that more difficult.

Judging from the standing-O the show received on opening night, I would say that he overcame this challenge quite successfully. Of course, this IS Seattle and this IS ACT, so there is a good chance that many of those in attendance that night actually could relate to this family they were watching on stage (I could not). But it was also the brilliant performances given by the cast of 5 that brought the audience to their feet.

Pamela Reed gives a convincing and complex portrayal as the staunchly conservative  family matriarch who has all but abandoned her Jewish identity and become a “Texan.”

Lori Larsen as Polly’s sister, “Silda” also gives a great performance and brings much comic relief to the tense household.

Kevin Tighe as the family patriarch, takes a little bit of getting used to at first. Maybe it was opening night jitters, but when he first came on, he seemed a bit stiff, but soon he became the likable, simple guy who had the good fortune to go from being a B-movie actor to a US diplomat.

Daughter and son were also believably portrayed by Kaminski and Blakely. In his role as Trip, Blakely also brought much comic relief to the show, and showed much range in his more dramatic moments as well.

Kaminski did a good job too in her role as the liberal daughter who threatens to expose the family in a negative light as her memoir causes to resurface some painful and disgraceful events in the family’s past 30 years before.

The set-design by Robert Dahlstrom, which was the living room interior of the Wyeth family’s Palm Springs home, was appropriately simple and elegant, consisting of off-white chaise lounge sofas and chairs, an amply stocked bar, and illuminated by a desert sky backdrop that blanketed the arid, California landscape of all those Other Desert Cities.

Other Desert Cities runs though June 30th at ACT. It is directed by Victor Pappas. For more info, visit: http://www.acttheatre.org.May 3, 2013

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