Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Other Desert Cities at Ensemble Theatre

A solid start to its season

     Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz embodies the essence of the contemporary Broadway drama by being two acts with one set and five characters that reveal various sides of a decades old family conflict.  Thematically, its forebear is the Ibsen play that peels away the surface of the upper-middle
or ruling class to reveal the hypocrisies by which its members have tried to thrive or, at the very least, survive.  It’s about secrets and waiting for them to struggle to the surface.  Though it may sound like an old chestnut, Lynn Meyers teases out more from the script as the evening progresses.

     In O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, those family revelations took four hours.  In Other Desert Cities, they take half that time.  The first act begins promisingly, but about two-thirds of the way in it felt like it was going around in circles and not really advancing.  We know the daughter Brooke wants to publish an unflattering memoir about her Hollywood and Republican powerhouse parents and that, though they love her, they’ll retreat from her if she does so.  However, this is repeated a number of times.  The initial conflict needs some more layers or textures.  I felt the play seemed overwritten and over-rated at that point.  Neil said, “The second act must be better.”  It is much stronger because it gets to the point and offers much greater detail about the family’s background.  Katy said at the end, “I didn’t see that coming,” which is the reaction that will make this work for audiences.  

Dexter Checks Out the Wyeth Home(?) in Palm Springs
     The acting makes the production.  Ryan Wesley Gilreath as Trip, the son, and Dennis Parlato as the father Lyman were very convincing because Gilreath suggested some of Parlato’s younger mannerisms.  Parlato possesses the physical elegance and the emotional power to make complete sense as a former movie star and ambassador.  They also have the best monologues in the script, as Paul pointed out.  Amy Warner as Polly, the domineering, brilliant mother, and Dale Hodges as her sarcastic, alcoholic sister Silda are terrific (and I hesitate to say) as usual.  We’re very fortunate to be able to witness two great professional actresses on a consistent basis.  I’m not certain I believed them as sisters, but they are completely authentic in delineating two intertwined souls that battled to the top and then were polar opposites in dealing with the failure of their ideals.

     I’ve liked Sara Mackie in previous productions, but her performance as Brooke wasn’t as intriguing as the rest of the cast.  It’s the linchpin part, but it sounded a little one-note and part of the problem is in Baitz’s writing.  He’s well suited to TV where a charismatic star or multiple storylines or commercial breaks cover for a character that hasn’t been fully developed by the writer.  Her best scenes are with Gilreath because she’s loose, then passionate, then pulled between saving herself and protecting her family.  His character deepens, but hers does not.  The other problem is that Mackie doesn’t look like she’s related to the other actors.  

The Cast, Set, and Lighting of Other Desert Cities
     Brian c. Mehring’s set and lights evoke the relaxed, California ‘70s Modern look that has been spruced up over the years by a rich, though trying to be unpretentious, family and Shannon Rae Lutz includes cell phones that look like they’re twelve years old.  Paul noticed that Trip’s turned up jeans look more contemporary than 2004.  Overall, Ensemble’s subscribers will thoroughly enjoy this production.

Other Desert Cities runs through September 22, 2013.

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