Friday, February 15, 2013

Other Desert Cities by Jon Robert Baitz, Austin Playhouse, January 25 - February 24, 2013

Austin Live Theatre reviewOther Desert Cities Austin Playhouse TX

by Michael Meigs

In an age when 'dysfunctional' all too often is appended to 'American family' in the U.S. theatre, Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities spends much of its two acts appearing to explore yet another meltdown.

Lyman and Polly Wyeth are prosperous California retirees with backgrounds in Hollywood and Republican politics. Their children are several sorts of messes. The older son got into drugs and then into political violence, getting implicated in a deadly firebombing before disappearing forever from a ferry in the waters outside Seattle. The daughter, Brooke, a promising writer, wound up in a psychiatric institution and is only now crawling back to reality. The younger son's a cynical survivor who produces a television show where small claims are decided by a retired judge and a jury of freaks.

Other Desert Cities Jon Robin Baitz Austin Playhouse
Rick Roemer, Lara Toner (photo: C. Loveless)
Just your average California family, so to speak. And to add some zip, it's Christmas, and the recovering daughter has written a tell-all autobiography that she wants her parents to embrace.

Baitz's script is carefully crafted, loading us up with exposition over the first twenty minutes or so and only slightly stretching our creduility. We're helped by Toner's casting, for Babs George and Rick Roemer give their characters good solid Republican self-assurance. She comfortably inhabits the sharp-tongued, steadily bibulous mother, and Roemer radiates warmth and charisma, no doubt much like that of Ronald Reagan. 

Brooke the wayward daughter is annoying. She suffers from cognitive dissonance, determined to publish the exposé and yet wanting the victims of the revelations, her family, to approve the exercise. Lara Toner does the best she can with the character's whining intensity.

This is a spiritually amorphous California-American family, not anchored anywhere except in bourgeois comfort. Polly is from a Jewish family, but she's not in the least engaged in faith; Lyman's a man of bonhomie and appearances. That is, at least in part, what the play's about: what is really important to these characters, deep down, as Polly threatens to punish their daughter by refusing to speak to her ever again?

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