Anna Galvin, David Gray

Other Desert Cities premiered off Broadway in 2011, and has since gone on to receive several Tony Awards as well as a 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist nod. The play’s name refers to a sign on California’s Eastbound 10 Freeway headed towards Indio and “Other Desert Cities”. Having spent nearly 20 years living in California (12 of those in Los Angeles), I recall having seen that sign on numerous occasions as extended family members live in that precise area of the vast Inland Empire.

As the Arts Club Theatre production opens, Brooke Wyeth (Anna Galvin) has arrived in Palm Springs, to spend Christmas at the home of her wealthy, famous, and politically-active parents. She’s not been to Southern California in six years, and dreads the thought of endless sunshine and the lack of seasons. Brooke has suffered years of depression and still takes her meds. She doesn’t need Dad’s money: she’s perfectly fine taking her pills, going to yoga, her doctor, and therapy: writing a book chronicling the Wyeth family: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Brook’s a writer by trade, and has a gift for it, however this book (later revealed to be a memoir) brings a huge rift between the family, as it intends to bring a third Wyeth to light. Brother Henry died young, lost to drugs and later a suicide bombing. Henry’s story and the family’s dirty laundry are due to be aired in public within the contents of this book. To make matters worse, Brooke’s arranged for an article to be printed in The New Yorker that will reveal a painful piece of family history.

A classic tale of family dysfunctionalism, the slinging of insults already commences at 8 in the morning. Jokes are mostly light but grow ugly at times.

Allan Gray, Gabrielle Rose Gabrielle Rose
[L to R: Allan Gray, Gabrielle Rose]

Lyman Wyeth (Allan Gray) plays the father, a conservative politician with a background in the TV industry. Wife Polly (Gabrielle Rose) is at his side, having written a series of movies in the distant past. “Hollywood stopped being fun after Lyman became involved with the GOP”, so she left the scene.

Son Tripp (Benjamin Elliott) lives in LA as he produces a TV show. Tripp gets a few good moments of dialogue in during the show, but the play really begins to take shape when the family starts to unravel with the impending book release.

Anna Galvin Benjamin Elliott, Gwynyth Walsh
[L to R: Anna Galvin, Benjamin Elliott, Gwynyth Walsh]

Polly gets her share of smart, biting quips throughout the production (“Lots of locked doors in her doll house”), but I was even more impressed with Aunt Silda, a pivotal character in the story and the near polar opposite of Polly in her liberalism. We find out later that Brooke’s been sending Aunt Silda parts of her manuscript along the way. Auntie’s also a piece of work; she’s recently left rehab and spends most of the time in a half-slumbered state on the couch. Gwynyth Walsh is fabulous in this role, as is Gabrielle Rose, the tough two dames that drive the play’s momentum.

Gwynyth and her sister Polly don’t always see eye-to-eye, and the tension builds around the novel, as Brooke’s photocopied the finished work for her family to read. Brooke expected her family to support her with the book’s release, but all she gets is a stern warning that her mother will never speak to her again.

“Telling the truth is an expensive hobby.” – Polly Wyeth

Act one ends with Aunt Silda’s firm support in Brooke as she declares, “You have ideas, they only have fear”.

After intermission, the chaos continues as the parents find themselves defending points in the book, changing up stories with their own versions. Issues of trust surface, and family tension overtakes the comedic punchlines.

The stage set is decidedly modern, with the requisite California swimming pool and bar area. The Beach Boys tunes serve as fitting interludes, weaving past memories into the present, much like the Wyeth family.

Other Desert Cities is entertaining to watch but moves too slowly for a comedy and drags on too long during the dramatic scenes towards the end. I’d recommend it for the warm California atmosphere (created by Set Designer Amir Ofek and Lighting Designer Adrian Muir) and the cast. The show continues at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage through October 20.

Photos by David Cooper.

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