By Richard Ades
Other Desert Cities may be one of those plays that you either love or you hate.
A New York Times critic praised the family drama when it opened at Lincoln Center and subsequently moved to Broadway in 2011. But some viewers who responded to his opinions clearly hated the play, even going so far as to leave at intermission.
After seeing Gallery Players’ production, I can understand where they’re coming from. Jon Robin Baitz’s work starts with at least two strikes against it.
First, there are the characters of Lyman and Polly Wyeth, a secular Jewish couple living in Palm Springs. Lyman is a former movie star who became an ambassador during the Reagan administration, and both he and his wife have immersed themselves in right-wing politics. Trouble is, they’ve immersed themselves so totally that, when faced with a painful dilemma involving their grown children, they respond with conservative talking points. Polly, in particular, is little more than a living, breathing cliché.
Add to that Baitz’s tendency to have his characters “communicate” by making long-winded speeches at each other. In the current production, at least, that adds up to uncomfortable moments during which everyone else is reduced to standing or sitting around in stiff silence.
Faced with the play’s shortcomings, director April Olt and her cast have a tough theatrical row to hoe. Despite this, a couple of the performances do manage to bear dramatic fruit.
Jill Taylor is intense and believably agitated as Brooke Wyeth, an author who’s struggling to recover from a seven-year bout with depression. Brooke is visiting her parents on Christmas Eve, 2004, with manuscripts of her new tell-all book about Henry, a brother who apparently committed suicide after being involved in a leftist-inspired bombing. She wants her parents to approve the book even though it basically blames them for Henry’s death.
Even more energy is provided by Jay Rittberger as Brooke’s surviving brother, Trip. The producer of a TV reality show, Trip finds himself in the middle of the resulting battle between his parents and sister. Thanks to Rittberger’s hyper and earnest performance, his response results in some of the production’s most compelling moments.
Tom Holliday and Catherine Cryan have less success as parents Lyman and Polly. Cryan doesn’t seem monstrous enough to say some of the horrible things that come out of Polly’s mouth, while Holliday delivers his lines as if ex-actor Lyman were simply playing one of his old Hollywood roles. And neither Holliday nor Cryan manages to inspire much sympathy, an admittedly hard task but one that is probably necessary in order to keep viewers involved.
Similarly unconvincing is Cheryl Jacobs as Polly’s sister Silda. Jacobs doesn’t convey enough edge or bitterness as the alcoholic ex-screenwriter, who plays a continually developing role in the battle of wills between Brooke and her parents.
In general, what’s missing from the production is a sense of the connections and tensions that would help the characters rise above their often cliché-ridden and wordy dialogue. At least Jon Baggs’s handsome set gives viewers something to look at while they endure all the speechifying.
Baitz does look at interesting questions in Other Desert Cities, such as whether an author has the right to use her own life as subject matter regardless of its impact on those around her. He also rewards viewers’ patience with some startling revelations.
But his play presents many obstacles to both actors and viewers, and the current production hasn’t been able to overcome them.
Gallery Players will present Other Desert Cities through May 18 at the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20 ($15 JCC members), $18 for seniors ($13 JCC members), $10 for students and children. 614-231-2731 or www.jccgalleryplayers.org.