‘Desert Cities’: Glossy exterior, substance beneath

From Left:  Christopher M. Smith,  Karen MacDonald, Munson Hicks, and Anne Gottlieb in a scene from the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of Other Desert Cities, running now thru February 9th at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St. Boston.  Tix/Info:  617-933-8600 or www.SpeakEasyStage.com.  Photo:  Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

From Left: Christopher M. Smith, Karen MacDonald, Munson Hicks, and Anne Gottlieb in a scene from the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of Other Desert Cities, running now thru February 9th at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St. Boston. Tix/Info: 617-933-8600 or http://www.SpeakEasyStage.com. Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

BOSTON — Funny things can happen in the desert. You can see things that aren’t there. And miss things that are.
It’s Christmas Eve, 2004 and Brooke Wyeth (Anne Gottlieb) is visiting her parents in their Palm Springs home for the first time in six years, and she’s toting along another guest: her as-yet-unpublished second novel, finally finished and something about which little is known.
Parents Lyman Wyeth (Munson Hicks) and wife Polly (Karen McDonald) are happy to see their daughter, who is recently divorced and is still recovering from a year-long breakdown that threatened her life.
Also along for the ride is brother Trip Wyeth (Christopher Smith), a TV producer in LA with a Judge Judy-type show that also includes B-list celebrity juries, and Sildra Grauman (Nancy E. Carroll), Holly’s sharp-tongued sister and former business partner who is recovering at her sister’s home from the latest of several latest rehab attempts.
It’s one big happy family — sort of — in the Speakeasy Stage Company’s production of Jon Robert Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities” in the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts.
Even as Lyman and Polly welcome Brooke, there is tension in the air. Brooke is being coy about her long-awaited second book.
Baitz milks the East Coast-West Coast, liberal-conservative thing for laughs early on as Brooke the political sparring over the Iraq War and “weapons of mass destruction.”
Lyman Republican circles state chairman and ambassador and and both he and Polly were with the Reagans and other Gop stalwarts Sildra is merciless in her putdowns of Lyman and Polly’s politics. “That wasn’t a book club,” she says about one of Polly‘s groups. “That was a vast right-wing conspiracy.”
Ah, but not all is fun and games in the desert and there will be no peace on this piece of earth on Christmas Eve. The elephant in the room is the memory of Henry, the sensitive brother who was involved in a group protesting the Vietnam War when the protest becomes violent and results in, first, a death and then Henry’s apparent suicide. It is an elephant that Lyman and Polly want desperately to be kept out of the room
It is clear that Brooke blames her parents for rejecting Henry and causing his death, and soon we find that her new book will make that abundantly clear, causing her parents to be disgraced
In Gottlieb, McDonald and Carroll, Edmiston has brought together three of Greater Boston’s most skilled and decorated actresses, and Munson Hicks and newcomer Christopher Smith work hard to keep pace with the talented trio.
The first-act sparring and sniping between McDonald and Carroll’s characters is fast and furious, a worthy successor to their back-and-forth in last fall’s Huntington’s “Good People.”
Polly mocks Sildra’s “Pucci original” dress that she claims went for $14.99 at Loman’s.
Later, Sildra advises Polly “I’m going to have to learn how to deal with you now that I’m sober.”
Gottlieb is the picture of intensity as Brooke, caught in a difficult choice: publishing her book or losing her family, a choice that threatens to send her back into the black hole she hoped she had crawled out of for good.
Sildra cheers her niece on with what she is doing. “Do it for Henry. You have ideas — they only have fear.”
Trip is reluctant to take sides about the book, and even confides to the same depression that plagued Brooke. “No one who takes pleasure as seriously as I do could ever be happy.”
The question for the Wyeths comes down to whether Lyman and Polly are selfish in asking their daughter delay her book until they are gone, to preserve their reputation in the community, or whether their daughter’s work — probably the best she has ever done — trumps all.
The witty one-liners and ripostes take a back seat as the second act turns dark and serious.
Sildra turns out to be the family conduit to information that Brooke uses for the book, and it turns out Sildra herself may have also failed Henry in the clutch
And now, as the late Paul Harvey used to say, for the rest of the story . A secret that Lyman and Polly are harboring will change things forever.
Director Scott Edmiston has his foot on the throttle in the first act as Baitz’s biting, witty dialogue carries the day, and then expertly applies the brakes as the narrative takes on a more somber, serious tone in the second act.
Janie E. Howland’s set conveys the casual comfort of the Califorinia desert, its colors inspired by the palette of Italian fashion designer Emilio Pucci, the subject of one particularly biting piece of dialogue.
“Other Desert Cities” may have a glossy exterior, but there is substance here thanks to an excellent cast and strong direction. It’s a winning evening of entertainment.
The Speakeasy Stage Company production of Jon Robert Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities.” Directed by Scott Edmiston. At the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts through Feb. 9. http://www.speakeasystage.com.

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