Ever been to Palm Springs? It's that strange Californian land were a few glistening and brilliant buildings punctuate the otherwise cold, desolate and uninteresting landscape. The same can be said of the Palm Springs set play Other Desert Cities. While the play, now playing at the Austin Playhouse, has a few shimmering moments and features an incredible cast, the majority of the play is bleak, flat, and barren.
Most of the problems with the play come from the stale writing from Jon Robin Baitz, widely known as the creator, producer, and occasional writer of TV's Brothers and Sisters. Though the play was well received on Broadway and was nominated for several Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the hoopla is undeserved.
The plot follows writer Brooke Wyeth as she breaks the news to her family that her next book will be a tell-all memoir in which she will detail a shocking family secret that has been buried and forgotten for years. While the secret and a climatic plot twist are original, inspired, and well-written, everything else has been seen and done before. Moreover, while Baitz showed with Brothers and Sisters that he could create engaging and interesting family dramas with three-dimensional and sympathetic characters, both traits are notably absent here. It is difficult to sympathize with any of the five deeply flawed characters, nor is it easy to care at all about their rich-white-people problems. The conflict is thin, the occasional political comments don't add anything, and despite the bickering, backstabbing, and bitching of the characters, the stakes aren't high at all. Furthermore, the script seems unnecessarily long. It takes 40 minutes of exposition to get to the conflict surrounding Brooke's book and then another hour of reactions to the memoir before the interesting act two twist. Granted, that final scene is one of the most wonderful, heartbreaking, and exhilarating moments in the last decade or so of American theater, but the journey to it is excruciating.
Unfortunately, Director Don Toner isn't able to infuse the dull script with any energy. While his staging is serviceable, there seems to be no fire or urgency under the characters in his production. What could be a battle royale between family members is more of a passive sit down discussion over drinks, peppered occasionally by outbursts, insults and jabs.
Still, the cast here is almost able to salvage the extremely problematic drama. Lara Toner gives a strong performance as the nuanced character of Brooke, a woman who has suffered from severe, suicidal depression and is struggling to keep her life together. She's fantastic in the moments where she gets to show her character's frailty and self-doubt. As Brooke's father Lyman, Rick Roemer is wonderful, loving, and charming, but he really comes alive in that aforementioned final act twist. His monologue in the show's final moments is riveting and breathtaking. But it is Babs George as Brooke's mother, Polly, who is the most memorable. George plays the stubborn, bigoted, and egocentric Polly to perfection. She savors every biting, aggressive line she has, and there are quite a lot. Rounding out the cast are the pleasing Bernadette Nason as Brooke's alcoholic Aunt Silda and the amiable Jacob Trussell as Brooke's brother, Trip, both of whom excel with their humorous lines and their respective dramatic moments.
While the cast of Austin Playhouse's Other Desert Cities is stellar and worth seeing, they all deserve a far better show than this. It's disappointing to see a cast as immensely talented as this in a piece that doesn't adequately show them off.
Before I end this review I have to leave a little message for Jon Robin Baitz and all other prominent writers of new American family dramas. August: Osage County scribe Tracy Letts, you should pay attention, too.
Gentlemen, please take a break. Just stop. I'm tired of your plays in which family problems are revealed as characters drink to excess, take pills, smoke pot, and curse like sailors. I'm equally uninterested in hearing them bitch about whose problems are bigger, who's more depressed, who hates mom and dad more, and who's contemplated suicide the most. None of this is original or interesting. It's all been done before, and Baitz, in your case it has been done before and done better by yourself through Brothers and Sisters. Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill were all tackling these topics fifty years ago when it was daring and shocking to talk about family secrets. But it's now 2013. We're past the point where any of this is captivating or relevant. Let's face it, fellas. Family problems are like buttholes. Everyone has one, they all stink, and no one wants to hear about them.