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Home » Culture and Criticism

Other Desert Cities: Salting the earth

Submitted by on February 8, 2012 – 3:59 PM8 Comments

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.

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  • adam807 says:

    I saw different actors in three of the roles (including Kirk and Griffiths) and quite liked the play but there was something I couldn't put my finger on and you nailed it: I absolutely WAS doing math in my head! Repeatedly and to distraction!

    I saw this off Broadway (on a 3/4 thrust stage) and while it feels like a natural transfer, I wonder if the required embiggening of the performances hurt things any. The way the Newhouse is set up, it's hard not to feel like a literal fly on the wall in that living room, and I wonder if that's changed.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Interesting question. I don't think so; the vibe was still pretty intimate, although not as explicitly so as it would have been with the set-up you saw. None of the performances seemed shouty or anything.

  • Melanie says:

    I have nothing pertinent to add except "Mmmmm…Justin Kirk."

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    [high-fives Melanie]

  • Josh says:

    I saw it last weekend, and (luckily, I guess) Griffiths was out. Her understudy was fine, but I also think the character is just a tad unlikeable as written. Griffiths' accent troubles were one of the deciding factors in my abandonment of Brothers and Sisters several years back, so it's good to know I didn't miss anything by not seeing her. Kirk, Light, and Channing were absolutely terrific.

  • Sara says:

    After reading your review, I found myself wickedly curious as to the ending, but I can't find anywhere on the internet where someone gives away the widely-panned ending. Imagine that! I can't find something on the internet! This is a strange feeling indeed. I'm now super frustrated and desperately curious about the ending of a play I'll never see as I live across the country. Oh, internet, you helped me turn a mole hill into a mountain. Anyone want to put me out of my misery and spoil me?

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Okay, I'm-a spoil it. Look away if you don't want to know.





    The oldest son, we are told for an act and a half, is dead. I forget what the (alleged) cause was, exactly, but it had to do with drug use, or a cult or something or other. The big twist is that he's not dead; he's living in Canada, and his parents drove him to the ferry and made sure he got away from the law. (He was wanted for drug use, or a cult or something or other. I don't remember. Doesn't matter.)

    So on top of the problems with the timeline AND the almost creepy degree to which his sister has made it the central event of her life, now you've got a ridiculous twist that wouldn't have stayed a secret this long. I mean, when your daughter tries to KILL HERSELF because she's still so affected by her brother's "death," I'm sorry: you tell her the truth. You don't wait until she writes a book about it. And after you reveal that you lied to her and everyone else for 30 years about this, she doesn't move to the desert to see you off into your senescence, then rewrite the book with a bunch of scenes of cutesy closeness with you. She punches you in the face and never speaks to you again.

  • Sara says:

    Wow. That is…yeah. I would have been pissed. I tried to guess the twist based on your and other reviews (irrationally obsessed! Seriously, I'd never even heard of this show before your review!) and I came nowhere close to that crap. Ugh. Thank you for indulging me!

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