'Other Desert Cities': Home for holidays, peeling away facades

Family style: (from left) Greg Wood, Susan Wilder, Krista Apple in Jon Robin Baitz's "Other Desert Cities" at Walnut Street Theatre. MARK GARVIN
Family style: (from left) Greg Wood, Susan Wilder, Krista Apple in Jon Robin Baitz's "Other Desert Cities" at Walnut Street Theatre. MARK GARVIN
Posted: January 25, 2014

The Walnut Street Theatre's set for Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities, with its airy vaulted ceiling, floating staircase, and open hearth with an enormous hammered-copper hood, implies multimillion-dollar mountain views, and clubhouse access. Combined with midcentury modern furnishings - all wood, with pops of teal and mustard upholstery - set designer Todd Edward Ivins tells us all we need to know about this sunken living-room melodrama long before we realize it.

The play, a Pulitzer finalist and Tony winner, is firmly rooted in the 20th-century stage tradition of dysfunctional families taking a long journey, drinking, and fighting well into night. The studied cool of Wyeth family matriarch and patriarch Polly and Lyman (Susan Wilder and Greg Wood), Hollywood successes-turned-Republican stalwarts, contrasts violently with the rest of their clan, assembled at their Palm Springs home on Christmas Eve.

Disheveled daughter Brooke (Krista Apple), a novelist coming off a long, turbulent dry spell; wayward reality TV producer son Trip (Matteo Scammell); and Polly's alcoholic sister and former scriptwriting partner, Silda (Ann Crumb), refuse to let old sparks die down. When Brooke reveals her new book, a memoir about her older brother's suicide, the combustible tensions among them all threaten to overcome the entire family.

Kate Galvin's direction leans more toward individual character studies than a unified whole, but this almost entirely Philadelphia-based cast makes the characters worth watching. In Colleen Grady's California-casual costumes, Wilder exudes the icy veneer of a retired Hitchcock blonde, pairing it with a tight jaw and imperious confidence. Apple digs deeper than I've ever seen her, pulling up a natural performance - barefoot, in jeans, hair flowing and unkempt - that builds until Brooke stops just this side of running like a madwoman into the street.

What makes this play more than a slog through emotional quicksand is the way Baitz keeps flipping his script. Our ice queen, it turns out, is really a Jewish girl inhabiting, as Silda notes, a heavy "Pat Buckley shtick." But neither is Silda quite what she seems. Secrets rest in every corner of the Wyeths' refined home. The beauty of this production lies in the way its performers tease out each family member's place in maintaining the truths and fictions that, despite their differences, keep them returning to the relative safety of this desert haven.


Other Desert Cities

Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St. Through March 2. Tickets: $10-$85. Information: 1-800-982-2787, www.walnutstreettheatre.org.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|