Other Desert Cities: Salting the earth
I really liked the performances, except for one, and I really liked the overall play, until the last 15 minutes. The first thing is not fatal to most plays, and it isn't to Other Desert Cities, which is a story about a family spending its winter holiday picking their respective ways around the steaming pile of a long-ago death that's sitting on the white carpet. Politically conservative, firmly cheery parents Lyman and Polly (Stacy Keach and Stockard Channing) play host to their daughter Brooke (Rachel Griffiths), a fragile, hostile writer who's still trying to shake off the penumbra of a suicide attempt; their younger son, Trip (my theater boyfriend Justin Kirk), an easygoing reality-TV producer; and Polly's sister, Silda (Judith Light), who's just off a stint in rehab and clearly wishes she still drank. What became of their older son is the pile. How each family member chooses to deal with it, or not, is what sends foot after foot firmly into shit.
"Family lances infected wound at long last" drama isn't everyone's cup of meat; I like it fine as subject matter if it's done well, and it is here, initially, with snappy dialogue that (mostly) stops short of Catskills-y and solid performances from everyone but Griffiths. I like Griffiths, but she's in higher weeds than usual with the accent; she's blocked strangely; and she makes a series of young acting choices that didn't work for me. She hasn't dug into the material, and I felt very aware of where she was choosing to place her feet on ottomans, or put drinks down. In her defense, this is possibly the direction; Kirk, after his character announces that he's done, spends the climactic scene, in which he has no lines, standing inexplicably in some décor pebbles at the back of the stage. And that is possibly the writing, which doesn't help Griffiths either. The character is no doubt meant by playwright Jon Robin Baitz to incite sympathy and exasperation by turns, but Baitz's timeline work is confusing at best, so instead of engaging with Brooke's grief, the audience is doing arithmetic in their heads, plus Griffiths is playing her more "drama queen" than "damaged."
And no actress living could save the climax, which fubars not just the historical timeline but reactions both short- and long-term to major revelations. Why do Trip and Silda not get any lines? Failing a reaction, out loud, why not just let them leave the room? Why did no one point out to Baitz that the vanity-lit coda doesn't play to his strengths, but rather emphasizes that people do not act this way?
Fantastic work from Channing and Light, peppy rhythms in the first act, but the "wait…what?" ending is the sour note that rings in the ears afterwards.
Tags: famous boyfriends Jon Robin Baitz Judith Light Justin Kirk Other Desert Cities Rachel Griffiths Stacy Keach Stockard Channing the theatah