Other Desert Cities
I have noticed a disconcerting production trend running throughout the Chicago theater community’s 2012/2013 season. Pardon my generalization as there are certainly wonderful exceptions, but the trend I’ve observed is this: in a number of dramatic offerings I’ve reviewed of late, there is a penchant toward tremendously exciting and suspenseful first acts, which leave the audience positively panting for more as it heads for a cocktail break. This momentum is then curiously reversed by limp, lingering resolution in the second act that fails to live up to the hype.
It is with disappointment I must conclude that Goodman Theatre’s Windy City premiere of "Other Desert Cities," the Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony-nominated drama from Jon Robin Baitz, falls victim to this cycle. The misfortune is compounded by the many portentous gifts the production promises: a brilliant playwright, talented, Tony Award winning cast members and exceptional work from Set Designer Thomas Lynch and Lighting Designer David Lander.
Two afflictions ultimately block "Other Desert Cities" from receiving this critic’s unqualified recommendation, and these shortcomings bare themselves nakedly in the aforementioned second act. Unrefined direction from newly appointed Goodman Artistic Henry Wishcamper is not enough to overcome a weak central protagonist in the form of Brooke Wyeth (Tracy Michelle Arnold).
It is possible that by eliciting a different kind of performance from Arnold, Wishcamper could have rendered the play’s deus ex machina, convoluted resolution into a satisfying reward for bearing witness to an intimate family breakdown. But instead, this viewer was left wondering how an entitled, petulant and unforgiving woman living in her own reality could carry off the pretense of justice and closure the production’s conclusion asks audience members to accept.
The year is 2004, just a couple years after 9/11 and the World Trade Center tragedy. Two far-right leaning Republican parents, lawmaker Lyman Wyeth (the charming Chelcie Ross) and former scriptwriter-turned socialite wife Polly (Deanne Dugan) are welcoming their wayward children home for the holidays.
Brooke is a novelist who suffered a much-discussed breakdown several years before, while brother Trip (solid comedic timing from John Hoogenakker) is a slimy reality television producer. While neither ascribes to the public and personal politics of their progenitors, there is a lot of love and acceptance in the Wyeth family. Tony Award winner Dugan renders Polly a firecracker of a helicopter parent, tough but tender. And Ross as Lyman evokes that old, huggable Ronald Reaganesque charm. Even as he’s deceiving you, it feels good while it’s going down.
It’s Arnold’s Brooke that is the issue. I am certain Arnold is a fine actress. One does not build a theater resume such as hers otherwise. But under her craftsmanship, Brooke, who brings news of a family tell-all book home for Christmas, seems like a spoiled and spiteful person, who, as her brother affectionately informs her, has her head "so far up her own ass," that she has stopped viewing her world from a balanced, pragmatic perspective. And this setup renders the subsequent emotional crisis completely disingenuous.
To the average viewer, it may appear that the ensuing, wrenching drama is the result of one woman’s stubborn, insolent refusal leave her corner and engage in a two-way dialogue. Most of the second act bears a glaring likeness to mommy and daddy trying to lure a preschooler to the table to eat her beans, drink her milk and oh by the way, your parents are not monsters.
They have been raising Brooke with unfathomable patience for decades. The inherent flaw in this dramatic setup is that the protagonist is 40, not four years old. As a fan of Chelcie Ross since first catching his incarnation of rascally Conrad Hilton on AMC’s "Mad Men," he is the one who broke my heart -- a feat I would not have believed a right wing, wealthy white male character could execute.
Succinctly: the "big reveal" of Act Two isn’t much of a reveal at all. It is an anticlimactic, and in this production, strange way to end an impossibly one-sided standoff. A brisk and funny first half infused with promise is ultimately undone by a tenuous, overly long and unbelievable conclusion.
"Other Desert Cities," with adult language and situations, may not be appropriate for younger viewers. Those who wish to catch a glimpse of veteran talents Dugan and Ross may want to get to the Goodman before the play concludes its short run.
"Other Desert Cities" runs through Feb. 17 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL. For info or tickets, call 312-443-3811 or visit the Goodman Theatre website."
Becky Sarwate is the current President of the Illinois Woman's Press Association, founded in 1885. She's also a part-time freelance writer, award-winning columnist and blogger who lives in the Rogers Park neighborhood of the city with her cat Dino. Keep up with Becky at http://www.beckysarwate.com