Los Angeles Theater Review: OTHER DESERT CITIES (Mark Taper Forum)

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by Tony Frankel on December 14, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles


Don’t the powers that be at Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum understand that casting is roughly 80% of a play’s success? Don’t they understand that any play, including Shakespeare, will suffer if an ensemble is fragmented? And when a play like Jon Robin Baitz’ Other Desert Cities is improbable, melodramatic, and expository (regardless of its title as Pulitzer finalist), it needs all the help it can get. I am reminded of God of Carnage, another Broadway play that Center Theatre Group recently produced which demanded impeccable casting to succeed, but if you remove the amazing cast that came with God of Carnage you have, well, God of Carnage the movie, which exposed just how wobbly that script is as well.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Other Desert Cities at Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles

Baitz tells the tale of Brooke, a prodigal daughter who returns to her conservative parents’ Palm Springs home at Christmastime. With her is a manuscript which chronicles the loss of her older brother to suicide, the blame for which is placed on her folks, Lyman, an actor-turned-ambassador during the Reagan administration, and Polly, an ex-screenwriter-turned-Republican stereotype. Also joining Brooke is her genial brother Trip, a reality television producer, and Aunt Silda, Polly’s kooky alcoholic sister.

Everyone in the play drinks, smokes pot, or pops pills as they spurt some interesting political familial rhetoric and clever one-liners: it’s Neil Simon in Palm Springs with an agenda. And while I’m sure Baitz was attempting to craft the picture of a modern disconnected family—one as fractious as the politics they believe in—none of these characters actually seems to be related to one another. My issue is most definitely not with Baitz’ ideologies or themes—family secrets, communication, façades—but they do not resonate as universal. And because the 2004 timeframe of the play involves the trickle down from the Reagan-era political structure, the entire outing is perilously close to being dated already.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Other Desert Cities at Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles

And because the cast never gels, I always had the feeling I was watching a play. Every one of the cast members is stylistically in a different play. But it’s not so much director Robert Egan’s fault as it is the casting director and the producers. Center Theatre Group must be so afraid that they can’t sell a ticket without a movie star or Broadway actor in the cast, that they eschew an open casting call, where a director can piece together a cast with the proper chemistry. Of course, Robert Foxworth is noble, layered, and perfectly gruff as Lyman, and Jeannie Berlin does her best comic relief as Silda. We may even buy Jo Beth Williams as a politically plasticized mother, but no one in their right mind will accept her as a contemporary of Nancy Reagan.

There may be non-detractors who find Baitz’ entertaining dialogue palatable enough for your money, but I assume most patrons will not forgive one thing or another about this evening: A well-meaning but slight play with a tacked on epilogue, the casting issues, or the horrific sound problems: Depending on where you are sitting, especially in the back, expect to lose anywhere from a few lines to an inexcusable amount of dialogue.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Other Desert Cities at Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles

photos by Craig Schwartz

Other Desert Cities
Center Theatre Group at Mark Taper Forum
scheduled to end on January 6, 2013
for tickets, call (213) 628-2772 or visit http://www.centertheatregroup.org


Deborah Klugman December 15, 2012 at 6:21 pm

Spot-on review, Tony! The only comment of yours I would dispute is your free pass for director Robert Egan. When a production is as anemic and soulless as this one, it’s the director’s responsibility. As to the writing, I personally found the play to be more of a cerebral construct than a living breathing work. The dead brother was a phantom and the other characters puppets in a hollow exercise.

John Topping December 17, 2012 at 10:08 am

I agree with Ms. Klugman. When you hear dialogue being trampled on, and you think, while watching, “Hey, wouldn’t that have been more effective with a pause before the next line?” (and there were countless examples of similar missed and/or botched opportunities), you’ve really got to lay the blame at the feet of the director.

Jane Thalken February 4, 2013 at 4:16 am

“Neil Simon-in-Palm Springs-with-an-agenda”! I love how you write the way I think. Sounds like you got it. At least Jeannie Berlin sounds right for her part.

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