Review: ‘Other Desert Cities’ at Theatre Aspen
If You Go …
What: ‘Other Desert Cities,’ presented by Theatre Aspen
Where: Hurst Theatre, Rio Grande Park
When: Wednesday, Aug. 12, 7:30 p.m.; plays through Aug. 22
More info: The Thursday, Aug. 13 performance will include a post-show talk back on mental health with the Aspen Hope Center.
How much: $32-$100
You’ll laugh! You’ll cry! No, really. Going home for the holidays with the Wyeth family in Theatre Aspen’s “Other Desert Cities” is a riveting emotional roller coaster of a theatrical experience.
This combustible, compelling production of Jon Robin Baitz’s family drama, directed by Sarna Lapine, opened last week and runs through Aug. 22 at the Hurst Theatre.
Polly and Lyman Wyeth are old guard Hollywood Republicans, who proudly call their friend Ronald Reagan “Ronnie” and staunchly defend the Iraq war (the action is set mostly on Christmas Eve 2004). Lyman, a movie star turned politician and culture warrior, is cut from the same charismatic cloth as Reagan, but his kids are no fans of the act. Their Palm Springs home is host to a tense reunion, with Polly’s sister Silda, fresh out of rehab, and their TV producer son, Trip. Their daughter Brooke, home for the holidays from New York, drops a bombshell and reveals she’s written a family memoir.
The ghost of the Wyeth’s first son, who died after joining a radical group that bombed an army recruiting station in the 1970s, is ever-present. When the family begins reading Brooke’s memoir, which revisits that dark episode, sparks fly and the secrets of the Wyeths’ past engulf them all.
Baitz cleverly mines generational conflict, family dysfunction and the foibles of the idle rich for laughs early on – and cuts the tension with biting humor throughout – but “Other Desert Cities” is ultimately a devastating study of familial bonds and loyalty.
Designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdam’s evocative one-piece living room set screams Palm Springs. But if you traded the palm trees and tennis whites for antler chandeliers and ski gear, the play could easily be set in a Red Mountain mansion among Aspen’s elite.
A stellar five-member cast manages to shape Baitz’s characters into three dimensions. No small feat, as in lesser hands these could easily be WASP-y caricatures.
Megan Byrne’s Brooke is a mess of psychological trouble and medication, trying to empower herself through writing – she’s by turns defiant, desperate and despairing. Her primary foil is her mother, the aloof and vindictive Polly, played with vicious delight by Lori Wilner. Her husband, played by Jack Wetehrall, is a hard shell of patrician rectitude with widening cracks that expose his disappointments and regrets as the show progresses.
Brooke’s brother, an aging Gen X-er who has found fortune producing a ridiculous reality TV show, gets the bulk of laugh lines early on – delivered impeccably in a naturalistic performance by Curran Connor (whose comic timing is also on display this summer in his broad take on Smee in “Peter and the Starcatcher”). Peggy J. Scott, playing the drunk and debauched old Aunt Silda, turns what could be a clownish Hollywood stereotype into a pivotal supporting role that underscores this dysfunctional family’s dynamics and the ties that both bind and break.
It’s worth noting that “Other Desert Cities” marks Theatre Aspen’s first foray into sober drama in seven years. Here’s hoping that audiences support this challenging brand of high caliber theater and keep plays like “Other Desert Cities” in the company’s summer repertory for years to come.
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