It's not easy to slap a label on OTHER DESERT CITIES. Jon Robin Baitz has created a play that is truly a hybrid, combining laugh-out-loud humor with pin-drop silence, mystery and mounting suspense.
Add to that hot-button emotional issues, including political and generational differences, religion, drugs, social status, gender equality, suicide, alcoholism… all delivered with humor and wrapped in a blanket of family secrets, and the result is a dense and highly entertaining, theatrical evening.
The story unfolds, over the Christmas holidays, in the living room of Polly and Lyman Wyeth (wonderfully well portrayed by Joanne Camp and Paul Blott, who really do resonate as a couple.) Two well-heeled, old school Republicans, with a background in Hollywood and GOP politics, the Wyeths are now retired and have removed themselves from the spotlight, to settle in a comfortable, if bland, home in Palm Springs. The artificial, perfunctorily adorned Christmas tree is a perfect symbol of their lifestyle.
They are reluctantly sharing their home with Polly's sister, Silda, a recovering alcoholic, fresh out of rehab and broke. Silda (perfectly played as a larger-than-life character by Laurie Thomas) is the complete opposite of her socially conscious sibling. An outspoken, 'in your face' progressive, she cares nothing for appearances and tells it like it is.
Visiting for the holidays are the Wyeths' two, grown children. Their son, Trip (convincingly played by James Louis Wagner) lives in Los Angeles, produces a successful, fake courtroom reality show and does his best to stay emotionally afloat. His sister, Brooke, a writer, now living on the east coast, didn't do so well and suffered a severe breakdown. (Jacqueline Reid does an outstanding job, portraying this clever, tortured and talented young woman.)
The plot thickens when Brooke reveals that she has brought with her the finished manuscript of her latest book, a novel that became a memoir of her early childhood. It's also the story of her brother, Henry, who committed suicide many years before, after being involved with a radical group that was implicated in a bombing scandal. Henry's name is never mentioned in the family and it's time to find out why.
The final resolution, which involves the uncovering of a long-buried, dark family secret, is the weakest part of the play, but the overall quality of the script and the ease and excellence of the acting, carry the day.
The characters are all perfectly cast and they really do resonate and interact as a team, as well as a convincing family unit. I was astonished to learn that they rehearse for only three weeks. "It works, because we don't have time for egos," says Dennis Gromelski, Fusion Theatre's co-founder and president. "Everyone, including me, leaves their ego at the door."
Fusion is Albuquerque's only professional theater company and it certainly shows in the quality of this production of OTHER DESERT CITIES. As well as the performances, everything, from the direction to the costumes and lighting, is impeccable. The show runs through September 19th at The Cell, 700 Ist. St. NW and, if it's not already sold out, do yourself a favor and go!
Fusion Theatre Company has just established a working relationship with the Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe and, for the first time, after completing its Albuquerque run, the play will move to the Lensic for an exploratory weekend, September 21/22. What a great kick-off! Santa Fe is in for a treat. OTHER DESERT CITIES deserves to be a sell-out.
For further info and details on performances, visit:
www.lensic.org (Santa Fe)
Photo courtesy of Fusion Theatre Company.