Review: “Other Desert Cities”

by Joe Kellen

 

Sitting in the expansive red velvet atmosphere of the McGuire Proscenium at the Guthrie last night, I found myself considering Walgreens.

It’s unmistakably fluorescent when you roll through the revolving glass door. Blue-shirted cashiers, neatly organized aisles, the occasional white cage holding cheap, colorful bouncing balls—each of these essentially indistinguishable in the thick layers of light. A few more steps forward reveals two-for-one deals on Rasinets, an indecisive high schooler contemplating Arizona Tea. Look a bit further though, and you’ll see the rows of pop novels and their glossy contents beckoning you from a glowing shelf. They’re straight out of the vault of manufactured storytelling, but they’re easy to read and shiny as hell.

“Other Desert Cities” isn’t much different.

Jon Robin Baitz’s new play flows like a daytime melodrama, detailing the living room of the Wyeth family to its last beige-carpeted fiber. It concerns the story of Brooke Wyeth, the daughter of wealthy Golden Era celebrities Polly and Lyman, and her Christmas vacation at their home in 2004. The entire family makes an appearance, including her TV-producer brother Trip and fresh-out-of-rehab aunt Silda. The only one missing is her oldest brother that committed suicide after being involved in the bombing of an Army recruitment center in the 1970s. His death (and life) are the most devastating topics of conversation for the family and are conveniently the main themes of the memoir Brooke’s about to publish the next week. When she surprises the group with this news, a torrent of tension overtakes the remainder of the play, which leads to many an overblown argument and the eventual collapse of their relationships.

All of the action occurs in the lavish Palm Springs home of Brooke’s parents, which is beautifully designed by James Youmans. In fact, every visual element of the show was striking and perfectly placed, giving the production an odd, television aesthetic. The forced warmth of the light design, impeccably matched clothing of each character and Beach Boys splashed soundtrack wouldn’t be out of place in a primetime slot on ABC. When these elements were paired with Baitz’s script, chock full of knee slappin’ sitcom jokes and episode-before-the-season-finale worthy emotional rants from every character, “Other Desert Cities” played like an overwrought soap opera. Like those squeaky clean drug store fictions, it winks and nudges at you with every cliché in the canon until they’ve all run dry.

This unauthentic feel is achieved through a predictable narrative and a consistent lack of spontaneity. Every scene that followed the first felt like a different permutation of the same scene, only substituted with different archetypes. It had everything a classic “family drama” ought to have: a lipstick laden aunt as a vehicle for comic relief, two parents with shuddering dark pasts, and two siblings who just try to make sense of the mess they’re in. Baitz’s play acts as a set-up to one big punch line that can be seen from several miles away.

The piece failed to punctuate this punch line with any sort of surprise or innovation because there was a brazen absence of any real action. It contained lengthy, circular versions of a repeated argument that twisted and turned in ways you’d expect an episode of General Hospital to unfold, only to be exacerbated in the structure of the actual spoken text. All of the lines came out of the back pockets of the characters as if the play had already ended. Nothing happened in the moment or with any real connection—it felt like the performers were calmly taking turns in the sequence of events. Someone got their joke, another got their big speech, and it all went round and round while the rest of the ensemble waited patiently for their moments to arrive.

Although there were some instances of genuine humanity on the stage last night thanks to a cast that did their best with the material, they were lost in the beaming overhead light of Walgreens. Nothing new to uncover, nowhere deeper to dig, just piles and piles of the same bargain deals we’ve purchased countless times. It’s safe to say that even though you haven’t actually seen “Other Desert Cities,” you’ve probably already seen it. Entertaining but never fulfilling, presentational but never engaging, Baitz’s new play may not be so new after all.