Other Desert Cities: Acceptance at Last? – by Mattison Johnston

February 12, 2013 in Blog by Cindy-Bandle-Young-Critics

I was immediately optimistic about “Other Desert Cities” as the curtain rose to display a hopelessly modern and pleasantly colored room straight out of the early 2000s. The top half of the stage is ingeniously sliced off by darkness, creating a panoramic view of the stage, reminiscent of its sprawling desert setting. The costume design (Kaye Voice) mixes effortlessly with the characterizations of each role, guiding audience members in how they view each character. However, the excellent set design (credited to Thomas Lynch) and generally pleasing aesthetics are possibly the high point of the entire show.

The story follows a dysfunctional family, living with a dark secret in the time of support for the war in the Middle East. It seems at first as if it will be a comedic take on the typical situation: a family, divided by generations, learning to live with each other’s differing socio-political views.

The beginning of the play is set off by bursts of comedy, which left me to believe that the rest of the play would follow suit. The hilarious and relieving role of Trip Wyeth (played by John Hoogennaker) offers small respite from the melodramatic and intense script. Hoogennaker plays his loveable character well, not only providing relief for the audience but for the family itself, when it seems as if all familial love and sanity has gone out the window. The intensely conservative mother, Polly Wyeth (Deanna Dunagan), at first appears as a crowd-pleaser, spouting bouts of conservative tosh that mock the Republican support of the war effort, yet she slowly devolves into a hateful character, taking any opportunity to launch into theatrical speech much to the audience’s displeasure.

At first, the audience feels forced to sympathize with Brooke Wyeth (Tracy Michelle Arnold), a staunch liberal harassed for her modern lifestyle in the big city by a conservative family. Yet, as the play progresses, Arnold’s character becomes a source of bothersome and repetitive rants. Although it is assumed Brooke is an adult woman, one cannot help but envision her as much more of a 15-year old rebel blaming her parents for all of life’s problems. The failure of Brooke’s role as heroine shifts the focus of the play (which I had assumed would be the mockery of conservative Republicans) to a forced annoyance with both conservatives and liberals and their endless digs at one another. These same generalizations force the characters themselves into horrible stock roles—the tortured child, the vengeful mother, the over-protective father, the class-clown little brother, the kooky aunt.

The plot offers a satisfying twist in its final throes, but the first half and much of the second are weighed down with thick blocks of repetitive and overly dramatic dialogue. However, this—for lack of a better word—boring dialogue is not a failure on the part of the actors, who excellently portrayed their characters with emotion and dedication, but on the part of the script (Jon Robin Baitz). Along with excellent acting, the body language and positioning, directed by Henry Wishcamper, adds a realistic touch to the drama.

Even though at times loquacious, “Other Desert Cities” sticks true to its moral compass and reminds audience members to accept one’s family, whether divided by politics, generations or otherwise.