A grown daughter’s soon-to-be-published memoirs of a childhood family trauma rip open long-festering emotional scars over Christmas Eve at the Palm Springs manse of an aging Hollywood B-list couple turned GOP political organizers in Jon Robin Baitz’s Tony-nominated 2011 drama Other Desert Cities, brought ably to life by Peace Mountain Theatre Company out in Potomac, MD.
Baitz wears his debt to Edward Albee, specifically A Delicate Balance, on his sleeve: the well-appointed living room with the frequently-patronized downstage left bar cart, the Palm Springs show-biz veteran Boomer versions of Agnes and Tobias, the alcoholic sister, the dead son, the returning prodigal daughter. He can’t resist the temptation to name-check: “The balance is… [anyone? anyone?] … delicate.”
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He’s also a leading manufacturer of a seemingly immortal theatrical genre against which artistic barricades are ever raised: Plays About Affluent White People Talking In Living Rooms. That’s not to say it’s a bad play – indeed, it’s probably his best work – but in a contemporary scene focused on diversity and inclusiveness, magical realism, and non-linear storytelling, it does feel like a relic. The political content makes it feel even more dated, especially ironic for a play not even ten years old (though set in 2004); Lord only knows what the Reagan-worshiping Polly and Lyman would make of today’s GOP.
Baitz’s script is nonetheless full of raw meat for actors to sink their teeth into: family dynamics, repressed trauma, political differences, alcoholism, suicide, etc. The company of five manages a few good bites but on the whole tends to nip at the material and not draw much blood. We get fleeting glimpses of the production’s potential power, though it generally remains engaging and entertaining throughout.
I can’t help but note that the actors all seem at least a decade younger than their characters; when Brooke talks about her late older brother’s radical activism, it took me a while to do the math and figure out that her character is in her mid-40’s and she’s referring to the Vietnam era and not, say, the First Gulf War.
Other Desert Cities closes December 15, 2019. Details and tickets
Praise is due for Emily Gilson as Brooke, effectively and affectingly navigating her journey as she struggles over whether to publish now and rip the scars open, or wait until her parents are dead. David Dieudonne gets in some good zingers as younger brother Trip, active in the biz as a reality show producer, yet adrift in his life. Susan Holliday as Silda, the aforementioned alcoholic sister and former writing partner of Polly, brings a spritely, if a bit measured, energy to the proceedings.
As Polly and Lyman, Nancy Blum and Ted Culler start off rather muted, but rise to the occasion at the play’s climax when a long buried secret is confessed, both revealing deeper depth and dimension to their characters than portrayed initially.
Julie Janson directs with economy and precision. The design team provide tastefully simple choices to the extent permitted by the performance space (i.e. no overhead stage lighting). Pardon the nitpick, though, but why no topper on the Christmas tree?
After six years, Peace Mountain Theatre Company is moving out of their Potomac home at Congregation Har Shalom; Driving Miss Daisy will be their debut in at their new home at the Writer’s Center in downtown Bethesda this spring. The move should hopefully be a significant profile raiser for them and allow them to be more ambitious technically and stylistically should they so decide.
Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz, directed by Julie Janson. Cast: Nancy Blum (Polly), Ted Culler (Lyman), David Dieudonne (Trip), Emily Gilson (Brooke), Susan Holliday (Silda). Producer: Hal Freed. Dramaturg: Nancy Eynon Lark. Set Design: David Levin. Props/Set Dressing: Charlene Sloan. Sound Design: Matthew Ratz. Lighting Design: James Robertson. Costume Design: Stephenie Yee. Stage Manager: Peri Schuyler. A production of Peace Mountain Theatre Company. Review by John Geoffrion