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REVIEW: "OTHER DESERT CITIES" — Newport Theatre Arts Center


JANUARY 20TH - NEWPORT BEACH


The toxic stew of long-buried family secrets, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, barbed endearments, and bourbon that festers in Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities” — currently playing at Newport Theatre Arts Center — is the kind of grim but enthralling mix that makes for gut-punching theater.

 

Set amidst the sun-kissed desert landscape of California, this engrossing play is a masterful examination of the bitter dynamics of one family’s love, raw emotions and forgiveness, while spanning the international disasters of war and American politics. To put it concisely, Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities” (named after a California freeway sign) is a scintillating and sharply observed dark comedy, with themes of depression, addiction and harrowing memories. The play runs in Newport Beach through February 11th.

 


Linda Sutera and Jeff Paul in Newport Theatre Arts Center's "Other Desert Cities"

The 2011 Pulitzer finalist, superbly directed by Carl daSilva, is set in the literal and metaphorical desert of Palm Springs, where B-list matinee idol turned GOP honcho Lyman Wyeth (Jeff Paul) lives in luxurious exile with his wife, the caustically funny Polly (Linda Sutera), a brittle perfectionist who shares the behind-the-curtains powerfulness of a Nancy Reagan. Daughter Brooke (Kendall Sinclair) and son Trip (Ben Green), who have the guttural one-syllable names so beloved by WASPs in common, are home for the holidays, and Aunt Silda (Alli Maier) is fresh from a drying-out spell in rehab after a long period of sobriety.

 


Kendall Sinclair and Jeff Paul in Newport Theatre Arts Center's "Other Desert Cities"

This already treacherous pile of kindling is set aflame with the revelation that Brooke, recovering from a serious bout of depression, has written a memoir, soon to be serialized in the New Yorker. The news is horrifying to her staunchly Republican parents, who’ve spent the last 20 years pretending to be the embodiment of the American Dream, despite the fact that Polly traffics in a bright, aggressive repartee that would make her both a lively hostess and a formidable enemy.

 

Without a doubt, there are aspects of their past they would rather not be reminded of, though it is hard to forget them with Ms. Maier’s Silda — Polly’s sharp-tongued sister in residence — who is not only a meticulously carved font of salty wisdom, but a staunch liberal besides. Part of the reason she had fallen into alcoholism was because of the conflicted differences of worldview between her and her family, declaring after one restless night of sober sleep that she has “more Nazi dreams than Elie Wiesel.”


Alli Maier and Jeff Paul in Newport Theatre Arts Center's "Other Desert Cities"

Dysfunctional families have always made for fantastic drama in Baitz’s world, and “Other Desert Cities” nails the cocktail of comforting familiarity and inevitable turmoil that comes with any kind of family gathering. But Baitz cleverly adds a new element: the notable absence of a third Wyeth child, Henry, whose turbulent past is revealed in fragments over the course of the play. Seems that Henry was involved in the radical underground subculture, including the anti-war bombing of a draft board during the Vietnam War which brought disgrace to his unforgiving mother and father.

 

Ms. Sinclair’s Brooke has been rendered barely functional by the hole her brother left in her life, and as a writer, she has the Gen-Y commitment to truth that bristles against her parents’ glossy, shiny exterior. During the course of the story, Brooke experiences bitter conflict between her yearning for independent understanding and reliance, and her parents' doting yet secretive motives towards her. During this, she also comes to terms with her family's sorrowing frustration in dealing with her post-divorce depressive episode, even years after Henry's disappearance.

 


Ben Green and Kendall Sinclair in Newport Theatre Arts Center's "Other Desert Cities"

Nonetheless, after absorbing the family's perspectives, Brooke insists the memoir is vital for her continuing on in life, whether her family continues to embrace her or not. Her conspicuous fragility is that of a reed that might snap if it bends. Any resistance to her parents’ charm is obviously hard won. And with her thorned passivity, she’s like a walking case of emotional blackmail.

 

She is also quite clearly Daddy’s girl. And Mr. Paul, in a layered performance that gives full resonance to the idea of an actor-politician, makes you appreciate why even a lefty daughter would continue to adore this arch-Republican father, with his gentrified John Wayne facade and crumbling core.

 


Jeff Paul, Kendall Sinclair, Ben Green and Linda Sutera in Newport Theatre Arts Center's "Other Desert Cities"

Trip, on the other hand, is Polly’s boy. And in his scenes, the first-rate Mr. Green conveys the flirtatious, conspiratorial ease that comes with being the youngest in a family of dynamos. He’s closer, on an obvious level, to his parents than Brooke is. But he has also achieved at least a modicum of an outsider’s distance. A peacemaker at heart, he seeks solace in weed and promiscuity, even as he plays mediator between his vulnerable sister and his endlessly shrewish mother.

 

Theatre veteran Jeff Paul is simply outstanding as Lyman, dominating the NTAC space with his booming voice and needy charm. Ms. Sutera’s Polly gets most of the funniest lines, and she delivers them with aplomb, whether commenting dryly that “despair runs in this family” or tempting her sister with a snifter clinking with ice cubes and whisky in much the same manner one imagines the serpent offering Eve an apple.

 

The actors are so good that you don’t even realize how good they are while watching them. The same might be said of Mr. Baitz’s writing. Built with gleaming dialogue, tantalizing hints of a dangerous mystery and a structural care that brings to mind the heyday of Lillian Hellman, “Cities” has the appeal of a Broadway hit from another age.

 

But what a reservoir of anguish lies beneath the dazzle. When all that ragged hurt comes tumbling out, we’ve been artfully prepared for it. But even if you’ve seen the play before and know its secrets, you still feel the full pain and strange comfort of what Brooke calls “the indentured servitude of having a family.”

 

WITH: Linda Sutera (Polly Wyeth), Kendall Sinclair (Brooke Wyeth), Jeff Paul (Lyman Wyeth), Alli Maier (Silda Grauman) and Ben Green (Trip Wyeth).

 

OTHER DESERT CITIES By Jon Robin Baitz; directed by Carl daSilva; sets by Jim Huffman; costumes by Kat Scott & Jenny Wentworth; lighting & sound design by Joshua Serrano; production stage manager Alyssa Kammerer; producer Andrew Kelley. Presented by the Newport Theatre Arts Center through February 11th. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes. Tickets are available via www.ntactickets.com/


Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report




Photo Credits: Sarah Whitwell

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