Other Desert Cities takes time to find its stride
By Jon Robin Baitz. Directed by Rachel Ditor. An Arts Club production. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, September 25. Continues until October 20
In this Arts Club production of Other Desert Cities, the first and second acts feel like different plays. Only one of them works.
In Jon Robin Baitz’s 2011 script, a wealthy Republican family convenes for Christmas in Palm Springs. Polly and Lyman, the mom and dad, refer to the Reagans as Ronnie and Nancy; Lyman is a former ambassador. Both are former movie stars. But adult daughter Brooke has a Christmas present for them that might just blow their status-driven retirement to smithereens: she is about to publish a memoir about the death of her older brother, Henry, who committed suicide after protesting the Vietnam War by bombing an army recruitment station.
Simply put, Act 1 is boring. We hear about the book. Everybody talks about what might be in the book—what Brooke’s take could be, what damage it might or might not do—but nobody cracks the damn thing open until Act 2. So we spend almost the entire first act wandering through back story.
And strangely, Act 1 contains a good deal of sitcom-style comedy. Polly is a queen of conservative one-liners. On their own terms, the jokes work: “Sarcasm is the purview of teenagers and homosexuals”; “It’s all or nothing with your generation. You’re either vegans or meth addicts.” But it’s hard to get a bead on the script’s style. Are we watching Golden Girls or A Long Day’s Journey Into Night?
Part of the problem may lie in director Rachel Ditor’s production. If the audience doesn’t like Polly, all of our sympathy will flow to Brooke and, without narrative tension, Act 1 will be over before it starts. Because Gabrielle Rose’s first-act performance as the mom is irritatingly false, that’s exactly what happens here. Polly’s material is funny—you don’t have to sell it—but Rose goes all diva on us, growling out some lines and delivering others with high-pitched nasality. There’s not enough emotional truth to it, to make Polly’s exhibitionism feel desperate.
In the first half, Allan Gray also feels sadly miscast as Lyman. He huffs and puffs, but can’t find the authority of a genuine patriarch.
Then, in Act 2, everything falls into place. Crucial characters have read the book by then, so we move into grounded dramatic developments and revelations. The second act also begins with the evening’s most consistently solid performers on-stage: Brooke (Anna Galvin) is talking to her younger brother Tripp (Benjamin Elliott) about his response to her manuscript. Galvin’s performance is raw, humble, and nuanced. I believed her every word. And Elliott plays Tripp, who produces a reality-TV show, with powerful understatement. As Silda, Polly’s alcoholic sister, Gwynyth Walsh is also authentic throughout: hunch-shouldered and caught between self-righteousness and self-recrimination.
With more substantial material to play, Rose and Gray both find their grooves. Rose pulls it right back into her heart and Gray is suddenly filled with affecting rage and pain.
This improved focus allows the play’s questions, which are substantial, to breathe. To what extent is liberalism an abdication of responsibility, an extended, immature howl of victimization and selfishness? To what extent can conservatism be viewed as courageous? What is the artist’s responsibility to her art and to her subjects?
Amir Ofek’s modernist, blond-wood set is gorgeous and, with moving pieces, he finds elegant dynamism in a location that could have been static. Costumer Drew Facey knows exactly how to clothe the casually wealthy.
Act 2 is a pleasure. Why make us twiddle our thumbs during Act 1 while we wait for it?