All in the Family

   Family dynamics are a seesaw. One minute you’re up, enjoying the warmth and comfort that comes from being surrounded by those who know you inside and out. One minute you’re down, reeling from the type of heartache that can only be inflicted by someone whom you love more than you love yourself. Family dynamics are a balancing act—between love and hate, want and need, truth and lies, comedy and drama.

   No contemporary play illustrates this familial dichotomy better than Other Desert Cities, on stage at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre through March 2. Written by Jon Robin Baitz, it premiered on Broadway in late 2011 and was subsequently nominated for a bevy of Tony’s as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Andrea Conte, Andie Radosh (background), Richard Kline, Susan Cella and Cliff Burgess in Other Desert Cities. Photo by Tim Pereira

  Set in the not-too-distant past—Christmas Eve, 2004—the play depicts the Wyeth family as they struggle to come to terms with their collective past. Brooke has returned to her parent’s home in Palm Springs for the holiday. Only, she didn’t come alone; she is armed with the manuscript of her next book, which recounts her late brother’s criminal activity and eventual suicide. Her parents, Polly and Lyman, love their children fiercely but do not agree with Brooke’s decision to air their family’s past in a public forum. With the aid of Brooke’s television producer brother, Trip, and Polly’s alcoholic sister, Silda, the Wyeths are forced to confront their family’s history—secrets and all.

   Other Desert Cities is a challenging play, packed with dialogue and infused with a delicate balance of wit, sentimentality and sorrow. The Maltz Jupiter Theatre, under the guidance of director Peter Flynn, handles this production with finesse. The play is as funny as it is sad and, given the fast-pace dialogue, it would be easy to bury the beats. For the most part, the cast delivers. There are a few stumbles with lines here and there, but that is to be expected with such a demanding script. The cast overcomes this by forming a convincing family unit—one with layers of experience, misunderstanding and hurt—and building to a dramatic climax that will leave you in tears.

Richard Kline (in background), Susan Cella and Andrea Coate in Other Desert Cities. Photo by Tim Pereira

   The Wyeth women pack a punch. As matriarch Polly, Susan Cella presents a hilariously flawed yet self-assured and tenacious debutante. She is honest to a fault and more than a little prejudice, but she loves her family—albeit, in her own way. Cella is the standout in the cast, projecting hurt and selling jokes often within the same phrase.

   Brooke Wyeth, played by Andrea Conte, is as damaged as Polly is headstrong. Recently divorced and still mending from a bout of depression, Brooke is looking to make sense of her life by writing about its most troubling time. Conte delivers a strong performance, marked by bursts of emotion, but has trouble conveying the character’s nuances. Conte’s Brooke is all anxiety and no warmth. Granted, part of this is innate within the character, but Conte needs to find the balance between depressive daughter and sympathetic character.

   As Aunt Silda, Angie Radosh stumbles onto the stage clad in a psychedelic nightgown and a mane of bedhead. In contrast to her sister, Silda has maintained her hippie tendencies and struggles to balance her old self with her new troubles. An easy character to overdo, Silda gains heart in Radosh’s capable hands.

Susan Cella, Angie Radosh and Cliff Burgess in Other Desert Cities. Photo by Tim Pereira

   The Wyeth men are more laissez-faire than their female counterparts. Lyman (Richard Kline) is a former actor and ambassador who just wants his kids to be happy. Kline’s performance is subdued; he allows the character’s actions to do the talking. His son, Trip, is a television producer/California bon vivant who turns out to be the steadiest voice of reason in the entire family. As Trip, Cliff Burgess has the best comedic timing of the bunch, not missing a chance for a laugh. Yet, he readily peels away the humor to unveil a kindhearted son and brother.

   Above all else, Other Desert Cities is about a family, the Wyeth family, and their efforts to keep the peace. For so long, they have maintained a certain version of the truth. As Polly points out: “Acting or real? The two are hardly mutually exclusive in this family.” When this truth is shattered, they are forced to pick up the pieces. The true test is whether this will be done together or apart.

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