Though all of Jon Robin Baitz's words are intact in The John W. Engeman Theater's Other Desert Cities, the production seems a bit confused in its efforts. Because the play was produced with great accolades on Broadway, it's difficult not to compare this production to the smarter one it follows. However, this is not to say that it does not have its redeeming qualities.
Other Desert Cities follows the story of Brooke Wyeth, a novelist who at one time was on the brink of success. She returns home after six years to spend Christmas in Palm Springs with her Republican parents, her pot-smoking producer brother, and her eccentric aunt. When Brooke announces that her latest effort is a memoir focusing on the Wyeths' darkest secret, Christmas takes a dim turn resulting in shocking revelations.
The central themes of the play revolve around tolerating, understanding, and loving the family we're dealt, thus making the dynamic of this assortment of characters integral to the play's success. A high point is the relationship between matriarch Polly (Joy Franz) and her sister Silda (Joan Porter), as both actresses cut into their vastly different roles with ease, and in Porter's case, a bit of humor. Porter's take on Silda is varies from that of Tony Award winner Judith Light's in that Porter comes across as older and less in touch with reality. Porter delivers a caricature of Silda, a role that should seem pivotal to the ensuing drama, but instead reads as wasteful. On the other hand, Franz is a spitfire whose Polly is worth watching at every turn.
Phillip Clark expertly plays patriarch Lyman. His ethics, heart, and joviality all resonate with the audience and are incredibly sincere when he finally shows flashes of anger and frustration. There is much relatability in the way that he trades jibes with Polly or chastises Brooke.
Nancy Lemenager takes quite a while to demonstrate Brooke's sarcastic nature and unique personality, as a neverending grin ineffectively stays on her face for the first scene. However, once Brooke's vulnerabilities start to show, Lemenager greatly expresses her different layers. Yet, while Brooke's brother Trip (Christopher Bolan) delivers the most powerful lines in the show, his performance is otherwise forgettable.
The nuances in the play's writing are its greatest assets. Director Richard Dolce orchestrates subtle,yet pleading glances between Silda and Polly as the family argues around them. With the exception of Silda making a boisterous entrance in an out-of-character muumuu, Tricia Barsamian's costume design tells the story of the characters' wealth and headspace. Jonathan Collins' set design is impeccable in its simplistic, upper-crust style. Every detail, from the photograph of Ronald Reagan on the mantel to the perfectly positioned gold-and-silver balls on the Christmas tree, aids in demonstrating the family's foundation and stability (or lack thereof).
Other Desert Cities is a treat in and of itself (there's a reason it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama). As with the Wyeth family themselves, this production has its merits, even at its most dysfunctional.