Other Desert Cities
Reviewed by Jess Linde
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum
Through October 1st
In the Theatricum Botanicum’s production of Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, family secrets are poured out in drams at the same time as an on-stage bottle of Macallan is emptied. At first, the casual day drinking of the fictional Wyeth family acts as a gauge of their interfamilial sniping and arguing. When a second bottle is opened in tandem with a new layer of squabbling, it becomes clear that the scotch, like so many of the characters’ performative quirks and prides, is just another means for the family’s coping with life. It is one detail among many small essentials that transport the Botanicum audience into the Wyeth living room for an intimate, impeccably performed, if somewhat metaphorically dated show.
The Wyeths are led (or perhaps, ruled) by Lyman (Mark Bramhall) and Polly (Ellen Geer) a former actor and screenwriter respectively, now aging Reaganite true believers who rarely leave their Palm Springs compound. It’s 2004, and they’re being visited by their liberal children: daughter Brooke (Willow Geer), a writer, and her younger brother Trip (Rafael Goldstein), a producer of trash TV. Polly’s sister and former writing partner Silda (Melora Marshall), a lifelong alcoholic finally turned sober, lives in the guest house. Things are tense from the get-go, and trauma is weaponized, dashing hopes for a boring, bourgeois Christmas dinner at the country club. Brooke, forcing a confrontation, reveals that her new book is not a novel but a memoir about her late brother Henry, whom her parents refuse to talk about. Lyman and Polly, clinging desperately to old guard GOP exceptionalism, try to bury the conversation, only for the fissures to increase.
Director Mary Jo DuPrey never permits the drama to become histrionic, despite the yelling. Her approach enables the characters to breathe and fully live on stage, a positive compounded by the acting. Bramhall lets us feel how Lyman’s world is coming apart. Ellen Geer as Polly and Willow Geer as Brooke create a palpable, boiling tension in their arguments and monologues. Goldstein and Marshall are great as two tragically self-aware side players used as therapists by their family, and they also effectively delivering the play’s sparse humor.
As everyone’s anxiety increases (which it does to teeth-grinding level), the audience is reminded via dialogue about the political climate at the time. George W. Bush had won a second term, and the “war on terror” was a year into its perpetuity. The audience chuckled at references to Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld, and at the arguments the Wyeth parents engaged in with their children about war in language referential to Vietnam. The play perfectly captures the fear, so very prevalent then, that 20th century American idealism was about to be shattered by threatening new forces and modern imperial warfare.
Still, it feels as if the family drama and the political commentary are in two different plays. To be fair, an artist cannot predict what will occur after his or her art is created. But it is difficult to relate Baitz’s themes to what is happening today when everything seems much more connected and politically polarized, or to imagine a place for Lyman and Polly in today’s GOP. While Other Desert Cities is a riveting family drama, as political metaphor it is ultimately as provincial as its desert setting.
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N Topanga Canyon Blvd; Sat-Sun., 3:30 p.m. or 7:30 p.m. depending on date; through October 1st. http://theatricum.com/other-desert-cities/ or (310) 455-3723 for tickets. Running time: two hours and 15 minutes with one ten-minute intermission.