BWW Reviews: The Alley Theatre's OTHER DESERT CITIES is both Fun and Dysfunctional
We have all survived the holidays and have welcomed in a new year. Just in case Thanksgiving and Christmas didn't give you your fill of dysfunctional family drama, The Alley Theatre is kicking off 2014 with their production of Jon Robin Baitz's OTHER DESERT CITIES. Named Outstanding Play by the Outer Critics Circle in 2011 and touted as "the best new play on Broadway" by the New York Times, this production puts the fun in dysfunctional while making the joys and pains of familial relationships viscerally apparent, even in spite of occasional lackluster performances.
OTHER DESERT CITIES invites the audience into the home of the Wyeth family on Christmas Eve. Here we are introduced to a family that seemingly deflects real interaction with humor and cynicism. Returning to her parent's Palm Springs home for the first time in six years, Brooke Wyeth turns their world upside down with the announcement that she is about to publish a memoir about the family's history, forcing them to come to terms with and relive the most painful moments of their lives. Direction by Jackson Gay excels at drawing the humor out of this production, landing a considerable number of laughs, and often making the members of the Wyeth family tangibly relatable. However, in the height of the show's drama, direction seems uneven, causing the actors to lack the full buffet of emotions that the show requires.
Alley Theatre veteran Elizabeth Bunch offers a mixed performance as Brooke Wyeth. She expertly infuses her character with a sarcastic wit and dry humor, making some of the angst in her character arc readily apparent and even endearing. Incidentally, it is the moments where she is at her most anguished, where her outbursts are overwrought, that feel disingenuous. This may be due to the lack of emotional levels that are seen at various moments of the show. Building little tension, her character, like the others, functions on a dry, acerbic level or at full emotional outpour with little variation in between. Furthermore, Elizabeth Bunch brings a keen sense of youthfulness and naiveté to the role which works for the character of Brooke on many levels. Consequentially, she also appears to be too young for the role. It feels like a stretch to believe that she is Trip's older sister, and at times her youthfulness reads as immaturity rather than dysfunction. It must be said that in the intimate moments in which Elizabeth Bunch is left alone on the stage to take a pill or simply stare into the audience with a pained expression on her face, she deftly emanates the depressed and vulnerable woman that we expect Brooke to be.
Playing Polly Wyeth, the family's matriarch, Linda Thorson excels at maintaining a façade of matter-of-fact candidness that is devoid of any real emotion. Completely fitting for her character, she skillfully shapes Polly into a glamorous and overbearing mother who seeks to control every last detail of her family's lives for the betterment of the Wyeth clan. Linda Thornson's real strength comes from her unflinchingly cold demeanor that she shields herself in as her daughter turns her world upside down, leaving the audience to gasp as they watch the mother-daughter dynamic shift. However, Linda Thorson builds her character with such a ruthlessly unshakeable temperament that the transition to her breaking point seems forced and hardly believable. We are only shown a mere moment of Polly Wyeth's weaknesses before she seems to have everything under control again.
Richard Bekins convincingly brings out the charming qualities of former American actor and Ambassador Lyman Wyeth, the family's patriarch. His love for his children, specifically his daughter Brooke, warms the hearts of audience members, demonstrating an unconditional familial love. He portrays Lyman with a fixed perspective, and that is to love his remaining children unconditionally. Once his daughter Brooke tests that devotion, he expertly transforms from a jovial father to a harrowed man. He effectively captures the distress of his character. However, there are moments when Richard Bekins is not allowed to fully build his character's emotional arc. It seems that when he is at his moments of most despair, his eruptions of emotion are unexpected and also not wholly believable.
Alex Hurt gives a strong performance as Trip, the youngest son of the Wyeth family. He brings a sense of humor and charisma to his character that makes Trip affable. Likewise, in his portrayal he imbues an unwavering sense of compassion for each family member and becomes the one Wyeth who is brutally sincere. While Trip seems limited in range at times, it truly works for this character because there are no epic and unbelievable upsurges of emotion from him. Instead, we are presented with someone who is somewhat divorced from the family's dark secret, since he was only five years old at the time it occurred. We are given a frustrated and empathic son and brother who maintains a cool distance from the drama because of his grounding in reality.
Playing Silda Grauman, recovering alcoholic and aunt, Audrie Neenan successfully marries outspoken and witty cynicism with bitterness and contempt. As Silda Grauman, she imbues an over the top personality with unapologetic candor. It is this bluntness that often brings the audience to laughter time and time again, making her a joy to watch on stage. With that said, there are times when her character is used as a comic relief in the moments that become too emotionally heated. It is at these times that her exaggerated personae detracts from the potentially meaningful moments and causes us to forget it altogether. It goes without saying, that Audrie Neenan should be commended on her multi-faceted performance. For the majority of the show, she portrays a woman of unabashed frankness, but it is the moments when her secrets are unveiled and her weaknesses are exposed that she becomes palpably realistic.
The technical elements for this production are stunning. Scenic Design by Takeshi Kata perfectly capture the inside of a Palm Springs home, authentically dated and undeniably attuned to every last detail. The multilevel space that includes a spacious living room, with a small bar and vast windows overlooking the mountains makes the audience feel as if they are sitting in the Wyeth home's living room. Paul Whitaker's Lighting Design effectively utilizes the set to create the effect of passing time. Most impressively throughout the production, he subtly transitions the light on the mountains from a sunny day to nighttime to show the passage of time. Jessica Ford's Costume Design is successfully tailored to each member of the family, emphasizing the split in their dynamics.
While it has its weaknesses, the Alley Theatre's production of OTHER DESERT CITIES has a lot of merit. The play is well written and features some truly funny moments. Overall, the play runs the gamut of fine dysfunctional family fun, and is worth seeing while you have the chance.