Chicago Theater Review: OTHER DESERT CITIES (Goodman Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 20, 2013

in Theater-Chicago

FIXING WHAT WON’T HEAL

Jon Robin Baitz’ Broadway drama Other Desert Cities depicts a crisis of apparent betrayal and imminent exposure that besets the Wyeth clan, a wealthy Jewish family sheltered in the oasis of Palm Springs. Viewed one way, Baitz’ Pulitzer Prize finalist is very much a two-act family fight. But, as Arthur Miller brilliantly argued, these squabbles are never neat or safely contained within four walls: In his masterful All My Sons (1947), choices made to protect a family can bring planes down from the sky. The fissures cracked open by family feuds can tear through society.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of OTHER DESERT CITIES at Chicago's Goodman

Astutely directed by Henry Wishcamper, Goodman Theatre’s revival of Baitz’ domestic drama is good enough to make you wish Other Desert Cities was not just braver but truer to the larger issues it refuses to embrace. Rather than show the interface between psychology and politics, Baitz prefers to let the audience make their bets as he rings the bell between each round.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of OTHER DESERT CITIES at Chicago's Goodman

Thomas Lynch’s sprawling, well-appointed ranch manse set, stony as the souls who occupy it, is the huge home where five loved ones question status in everything they do. It’s Christmas 2004. Eagerly supporting a second war in Iraq, Polly Wyeth (Deanna Dunagan, ever the dowager dominatrix) is a Nancy Reagan look-alike, a queen bee in this Republican enclave of privilege and prestige, married to former ambassador and T.V. Western hero Lyman Wyeth (Chelcie Ross). Sadly resigned to smoking outside and cutting firewood, Lyman is a downhome Bush-Reagan amalgam who just wants to make peace within his house. Sex-addict son Trip (John Hoogenakker) is a risk-aversive reality T.V. director, a bottom-feeding purveyor of populist pulp. For this he’s both pitied and despised by sister Brooke (Tracy Michelle Arnold, running the proverbial gamut as a treacherous plot requires), a successful freelance writer. Finally, there’s Polly’s dependent sister Tilda (Linda Kimbrough), a sardonic closet liberal who, like her niece Brooke, has a history of depression and a penchant for overwrought self-medication.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of OTHER DESERT CITIES at Chicago's Goodman

There’s one more Wyeth – a sixth, now dead, family member who firmly haunts them. Henry was an addict who got caught up in a radical cult and was implicated in the bombing of a recruiting center where a veteran was burned to death. Ambitious, driven and deeply resentful of her family’s corrupt conservatism, Brooke has written a tell-all “memoir,” soon to appear in The New Yorker. Airing the Wyeth laundry for all to see, the article indicts her parents for kicking Henry out, leaving him to the torture of his inner demons and manipulation by an outer sect, finally driving him to suicide.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of OTHER DESERT CITIES at Chicago's Goodman

Predictably and toxically, Polly reviles her daughter, accusing her of spreading dirt and sabotaging the family name. Fighting back, Brooke, joined by Silda, attacks the patrician parents for their complicity in an unfair society that despises weak souls like Henry and consigns them to Darwinian destruction.

It almost seems too pat a rift, as political as temperamental, between the tough-loving, hard-hearted matriarch and the sensitive and caring daughter and aunt, with clueless Trip and anguished Lyman caught in the crossfire. Who here deserves custody of the truth about Henry? Will it even set them free?

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of OTHER DESERT CITIES at Chicago's Goodman

Of course, that’s too convenient a clash – and inevitably Baitz artfully complicates things in the second act. As it turns out, even more than truce-minded Lyman, the playwright is the real peacemaker here. Unfortunately, it comes at the cost of a feel-good, terms-of-endearment finale that retroactively undermines the fury of the first-act fight. Despite its reference to real crises in less-happy oases, Other Desert Cities is sadly and only all in the family. Unlike O’Neill or Miller, Baitz is content to cure with a plot twist the Wyeths’ seemingly non-negotiable civil war.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of OTHER DESERT CITIES at Chicago's Goodman

No question, this quintet is ripe and ready for the catty put-downs, passive-aggressive infighting and “gotcha” giveaways that drive the dialogue. But they can’t redeem a cunning plot that ultimately cops out, papering over crises that a braver playwright would never dare to fix.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of OTHER DESERT CITIES at Chicago's Goodman

[click HERE for Stage and Cinema’s review of Other Desert Cities at Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles]

photos by Liz Lauren

Other Desert Cities
Goodman Theatre
scheduled to end on February 17, 2013
for tickets, call 312.443.3800 or visit http://www.GoodmanTheatre.org

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