Monday, January 28, 2013

Family, Politics Intersect Grippingly in 'Other Desert Cities' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Other Desert Cities
a play by Jon Robin Baitz
directed by Henry Wishcamper
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru February 17
@@@@1/2

What makes for a great, or at least thoroughly satisfying, play?

Over just the past 2 months, I have seen eight non-musical stage works that I awarded at least @@@@. One featured magnificent horse puppetry (War Horse); another was a series of mythological vignettes enacted in and around a swimming pool (Metamorphoses); the one I saw last Thursday—The Whipping Man—had a tremendously original premise about a Jewish Confederate soldier and his family’s newly freed slaves reconnecting at the end of the Civil War.

Compared to these, and others such as The School of Lies, a modern re-writing of Moliere’s The Misanthrope, and The Motherf**cker with the Hat, a profane drug-fueled look at love, loyalty and friendship, Other Desert Cities might seem to have a much more routine storyline and structure.

It is essentially a “family drama”—in the vein of August: Osage County, A Long Day’s Journey into Night and many less heralded works—complete with affluent Conservative parents, more Liberal, less successful children, issues of depression and substance abuse and a decades old family tragedy haunting the entire proceedings.

I wouldn’t blame you—or myself, upon entering—for having a sense of “been there, seen that.”

But in being demonstrably well-written and wonderfully-acted throughout, truly riveting toward the end and with plenty of beyond-face-value context and allegory to take home, Other Desert Cities wound up being even more fulfilling than any of the highly inventive works I’ve seen of late.

This isn’t all that shocking in noting that Jon Robin Baitz’ play, which ran on Broadway (closing just last June), was nominated for a Tony and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. But it does go to show that great artistic merit can come just as much—or more so—from the execution, rather than simply the concept.

With clear echoes of the Reagans—who are cited in the play as close family friends—Lyman and Polly Wyeth are stalwart Republicans spending their twilight years in Palm Springs. Played by veteran TV/film character actor Chelcie Ross (he played Conrad Hilton on Mad Men), Lyman is a former movie star turned politician, ambassador and GOP chairman. But while his politics are strongly to the right—at least as Republicanism was characterized before being co-opted by more extreme factions—Ross, and Baitz’ script, imbue him with a convincing amount of humanity and paternal empathy.

And as Polly, a Nancy Reagan doppelganger, Deanna Dunagan—who won a Tony and other awards for August: Osage County—shows she has not only cornered the market on embodying headstrong and abrasive matriarchs, but that she very well be the best actress I’ve ever seen on stage. Her nickname—√† la a Chris Berman highlight-package narration on ESPN—should be Deanna “Amazing Work” Dunagan.

Polly is a former screenwriter who had once worked and bitterly feuded with her sister, Silda (Linda Kimbrough), now a reluctantly recovering alcoholic who lives at the Wyeth’s luxurious home (whose set design reminded me of David Hockney paintings, like this one).

The main crux of the Other Desert Cities patiently develops across the first act, as with Brooke Wyeth (Tracy Michelle Arnold) visiting her folks from Long Island on Christmas Eve, we are introduced to her recent struggles, including psychiatric hospitalization and having been unable to produce a follow-up to her first novel. Though there is much back and forth between Brooke and Polly from the get-go, there is also considerable humor, much of it supplied by Brooke’s brother Trip (John Hoogenakker), who makes his living as a reality TV producer.

I won’t go much deeper into the plot outline, other than to share that it primarily centers around Brooke announcing that she has completed writing a memoir about her family, in which she holds her parents accountable for the suicide of her beloved older brother. This, understandably, sets her folks afire.

What makes the play so good is that while some audience members—myself included—might be politically predisposed to side with the liberal Brooke in what becomes a vociferous debate, Baitz’ script doesn’t settle for knee jerk partisanship. Yes, Polly—and to a lesser extent, Lyman—is harsh, often detestably so, but more through actions (including having tended to Brooke through her troubles) than words, their parental love seeps to the surface.

And while as somewhat of a writer, I can empathize with what it means for the long-stagnated Brooke to have written a lengthy tome about an obviously deep-seated subject, the propriety of publishing a devastating rebuke of parents with whom she has maintained a nourishing relationship (at least in certain regards) isn’t so cut and dry.

Which Trip repeatedly seemed to espouse just moments after a potential retort to or question for Brooke came to my mind. Often in seeing plays, I have found my wonderments posed only in post-show discussions, so I was particularly impressed when my line of reasoning was consistently verbalized onstage.

Based solely on Act I, I may have given Other Desert Cities @@@@; excellent but not quite approaching phenomenal. But while I may be a sucker for acute intensity, I had to add points for an edge-of-my-seat denouement.

As I mentioned above, many recent plays have left me rather enriched, at times even dazzled. But to a much more overt extent, this one ended by engendering a staggering-off-the-roller-coaster “Wow!”

Clearly, I suggest you make your way to Other Desert Cities before it closes on February 17.

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A note on affordable theatergoing:

In the month of January, I attended three plays at three of Chicagoland’s most venerable professional theaters: The Motherf**cker with the Hat at Steppenwolf, The Whipping Man at Northlight and Other Desert Cities at Goodman. I felt the local renditions were every bit as good as I’d hope to see in New York, where all three plays ran within the last 2 years. I got to see great actors, including a Tony winner and performers with extensive IMDB credits.

My total outlay for the three shows—including ticketing fees and even parking costs, as I didn’t incur any—was $66.

Whether you opt to become a subscriber—Goodman’s Sunday night series is a phenomenal bargain, as is my Broadway in Chicago balcony club plan—or have the pliability to take advantage of discount ticket offerings without much lead time—Goodman, Steppenwolf and Northlight all offer same-day ticket promotions, some for as low as $20/each, and often provide tickets to discount sellers HotTix and Goldstar—you can see a lot of amazing theater for a lot less than you might think.

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