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BWW Reviews: Portland Center Stage Finds a Surprising Family at the Heart of OTHER DESERT CITIES

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Some shows announce themselves right there in the title, telling you everything you need to know. Others have deceptive titles, but as soon as you walk into the theater, you know what's going to happen from the set and the preshow music. Still others - and this is rare - draw you in to believing they're one thing, but as you're watching they gradually shift in tone until you're completely astounded at where the dramatist, the director, and the cast have taken you. Such a show is Other Desert Cities.

You walk in to find a stunning set. (After Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike, here's another PCS set that I would happily claim as my living space.) An enormous living room dressed in desert beige, cool and modern, yet with touches of old family furniture at the sides. A perfect blue sky and a handful of palm trees stand outside: Palm Springs on Christmas Eve, 2004. The Wyeth family has gathered for the holidays. Lyman is a former actor turned politician, now retired; he and his wife, Polly, refer to "Ronnie and Nancy" as old family friends. Polly's sister Silda, a recovering alcoholic, lives with them. Son Trip, a TV producer, is on hand. And so is Brooke, their daughter, who has come from Long Island after a long absence.

Playwright Jon Robin Baitz leads with some easy humor. Jokes about politics. Brooke is a "lefty liberal," Polly a "hardcore believer" in the wars going on in the Middle East. Jokes about Trip's television show, a sort of Courtroom of the Stars in which D-list celebrities serve as the jury on small-claims cases. There's tension underneath, but that's to be expected - Baitz has to find something to fill two hours with, right? Everyone is bright and brittle and funny, and the audience is laughing.

Gradually, however, we discover that there is more going on than a simple reunion. Brooke, a blocked novelist, has written a memoir about the family, and as the others learn about this, we find out more about the history behind it. Very slowly - though without losing his sense of humor - Baitz draws us deeper and deeper into the Wyeths' drama, and the further we go, the more intense it becomes, until you're absolutely certain no one's coming out of the evening alive.

It's a tough piece, and the gradual shift in tone has to be handled carefully, but director Timothy Bond has assembled a wonderful cast and directed them brilliantly. Every member of the cast of five is at the top of their form, and the designers - especially set designer William Bloodgood - match their level. Bond's main achievement here is to keep everyone playing on the same side, the performances deepening as the play becomes darker.

Ned Schmidtke, as Lyman, would seem to have the simplest assignment; Lyman is one of those fathers who just wants to keep the peace and bury all the unpleasantness under the rug, but the women in his life won't allow it. He fights for what he believes in, and little by little his peace is shattered until he can take no more, and Schmidtke falls apart just at the right time and in the right way. Barbara Broughton's Polly is all brittle quips and moral indignation at first, and she among the characters doesn't seem to change, but when we find out what's buried in her heart, we have to re-evaluate her. Broughton makes her deceptively one-sided and almost hateful, but there's a big heart underneath the perfect exterior.

Susan Cella gets the most outrageous lines as Silda, the alcoholic truth-teller. Baitz has a lot of fun giving her wild things to say, and Cella has a grand old time hurling one-liners around, but as we go along with the story, Cella's performance grows deeper and more touching, and she finds new levels of pain underneath the brittle exterior. D'Arcy Dersham has the big speeches as Brooke, who's fighting depression and suicidal thoughts, and she has to maintain our sympathies while the character pours out a litany of her parents' faults. She wins us over early on with charm and honesty, though gradually we see that Brooke isn't quite as different from her parents as she would like to think. Joel Reuben Ganz seems to be all charm and smiles as her younger brother, Trip, and he gets a lot of the easy humor early on, but we get to see how damaged he is, and he doesn't always take the positions the other characters want him to; Ganz has some powerful moments in the second act, and he does them full justice.

All five actors work together extraordinarily well, a tribute to the script, the director, and their own skill. You will walk into this play thinking it's fun and charming and superficial, but you will walk out moved and surprised at how resilient families (and theater folk) are. "Families get terrorized by their weakest member," says one of the characters early on, and Other Desert Cities spends two hours examining that statement. By the end of the play, however, you won't know which of the five the line refers to. Amazing writing, deftly handled by an expert cast under thoughtful direction. What else can you ask for?


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From This Author Patrick Brassell

Patrick Brassell is the author of five published novels and five produced plays. He has directed, produced, and designed sound for about fifty theater productions, (read more...)