Other Desert Cities at Actors' Playhouse: Ideology Trumps Family
Sure, it's expensive to attend Other Desert Cities at Actors' Playhouse. And then there's parking and babysitters and dressing up. But take out another mortgage if you have to. Feast on ramen for a week. Dip into your children's college fund. It's worth it. This is the kind of production that wins awards and is never forgotten.
Other Desert Cities is set in Palm Springs, California, a city I've never visited but one I think I understand after immersing myself for a couple of hours in Tim Bennett's stylish Southwestern home design, circa 2004. A bay window overlooking a palm tree is an especially elegant touch, and inside the living room set, canvases showing cacti and western sunsets share wall space with movie posters for fictitious adventure films starring one Lyman Wyeth (K. Kenneth Campbell), the home's owner, a former movie star turned staunch Republican politico. He shares the place with his wife, Polly (Barbara Bradshaw), another hard-hat true believer in bootstraps and unnecessary wars.
It's Christmas Eve, and the Wyeths have invited their children, Brooke (Erin Joy Schmidt) and Trip (Antonio Amadeo), to celebrate. Brooke is a novelist, or was — she wrote a best-seller six years earlier, and then a mental breakdown led to a lengthy hospitalization. Trip works behind the scenes on a lowbrow courtroom series called Jury of Your Peers, in which has-been celebrities adjudicate small claims.
Both are liberal and oppose their parents' ideologies, but the only subject more verboten than politics in the Wyeth household is the family's third child, Henry, a radical antiwar bomb-thrower whose guilt-induced suicide decades earlier left Brooke scarred and resentful of her parents' right-wing upbringing.
Brooke has news this Christmas that will reopen old wounds surrounding Henry's actions: She finally has a deal for a second book, but it's a memoir, not fiction, and it will explore the relationship of her parents and late brother, shining a harsh spotlight on her mother and father.
The rest of Other Desert Cities revolves around this revelation, with Brooke desiring her parents' approval and receiving only recriminations and threats that the book's publication will sever their relationship forever — for reasons that emerge only as the story comes to a shattering close.
The play itself is exquisite, a great American masterpiece for this or any time, and while the domestic conflict sounds like the stuff of grim drama, Other Desert Cities has a wonderful wit about it. Playwright Jon Robin Baitz, who created the successful ABC series Brothers and Sisters and did some writing on The West Wing, fills his script with countless quotable mots — "This water needs vodka for flavor" and "This whole town is filled with mummies with tans" — and profound aphorisms that flow naturally from the characters' conversations.
But it's the quality of this production — of David Arisco's intelligent direction and the cast's incredible verisimilitude — that makes Baitz's combustible mix of urbane humor and volatile tragedy hit home so effectively.
Let's start with Erin Joy Schmidt, who in nearly every role sounds like she's anxious, a frayed nerve on the brink of implosion. But what come across initially as familiar tics and vocal cadences from previous shows develop into something wholly original — a vivid, crushingly moving performance that captures every color in a vast emotional spectrum. She disappears completely into Brooke; it's the best work she's done since 50 Words in 2010 at GableStage.
She has an exceptional sparring partner in Barbara Bradshaw, who returns to the South Florida stage after a lengthy absence. She plays a mother none of us would like to have but many will find familiar — a smart and calculated bulldozer with a penchant for playing the victim. When she solemnly asks Brooke: "How can I ever be in your presence, my dear?" it makes jaws drops. As she has proven in the past, nobody on the South Florida scene can twist verbal daggers so forcefully into targets; they cut deep, and they're too eloquent and meaningful to ignore.
Moreover, the wordless chemistry she shares with costar Campbell cannot easily be taught. These two actors, who spent all of two weeks in rehearsal, look and sound like a couple who have been married for so many years that they anticipate one another's every gesture.
Rounding out the cast, Antonio Amadeo brings a warm comfortableness to Trip, a sounding board for the rest of the family whose own considerable problems are tragically ignored. A wonderful ensemble player, Amadeo exhibits his underrated ability to put audiences, castmates, and sometimes even their characters at ease. Laurelene Snedeker capably plays what might now be considered a token role as the Quirky Alcoholic Relative, Silda, a part all-too-similar to one in Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance.
Snedeker, Amadeo, and Campbell are frequently positioned on the periphery of the expansive living room, like silent trainers perched in the corners of a ring, as the two powerful women mentally box through their problems. After the opening-night performance, Amadeo told me that it was a challenge to remain in character in these moments of sidelined silence — to not become an audience member himself, in thrall to the titanic tête-à-tête in front of him.
Such is this play's power in Arisco's hands. It's only January, yet I can't imagine a regional theater production that will top it over the next 11 months. The bar has been set.
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