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Theater review: Pioneer Theatre Company’s “Other Desert Cities”

by on October 28, 2013

The set-up in Other Desert Cities makes it seem like the audience is in store for a relatively straightforward family drama. But the new production by Pioneer Theatre Company is anything but that.

The play opens on Christmas Eve 2004 at the Palm Springs home of old Hollywood hands-turned-GOP stalwarts Polly (Joyce Cohen) and Lyman (Dennis Parlato) Wyeth.  The Wyeths are welcoming their politically liberal children for the hoidays for the first time in years, and while their politics might have diverged from their parents’, son Trip (Michael Zlabinger) and daughter Brooke (Nancy Lemenager) share their folks’ quick wit and knack for verbal sparring, as does houseguest Silda, Polly’s sister and one-time writing partner.

Left to right: Dennis Parlato, Joyce Cohen, Kate Skinner. Behind them: Nancy Lemenager and Michael Zlabinger

Left to right: Dennis Parlato, Joyce Cohen, Kate Skinner. Behind them: Nancy Lemenager and Michael Zlabinger

The reunion at the show’s start sets up what’s to come with fiery and hilarious exchanges between the parents and their children that outline the characters’ respective political stripes–only to subvert them as the action unfolds later. Lyman’s desire to help Brooke financially shows the parental love that still resides in him and Polly despite their political estrangement from their author daughter, while Polly’s observation that Brooke needn’t dress “like a refuge from a library in Kabul” is a fine example of that love being cut with wicked jabs in areas where the parents find their children lacking.

Propelling the drama among the family members is Brooke’s revelation that she has penned a book about the family, including plenty about a character always felt but never seen on stage. Son and brother Henry, an anti-Vietnam War activist who died in a bombing incident, was Brooke’s best friend, but her need to dissect the family and rip the scab off her parents’ tragic loss of their son sets up a night of family secrets revealed and explored at the Wyeth house.

The script by Jon Robin Baitz is full of some of the most emotionally rich and biting dialogue I’ve heard from a stage in a long time; it’s easy to understand why Other Desert Cities was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 after successful runs on and off Broadway when it debuted in 2011. And the actors tear into that script with roundly excellent performances.

The mother-daughter dynamic playing out between Polly and Brooke, and delivered with incredible skill by Cohen and Lemanger, is the highlight of Other Desert Cities, but every character is truly given a chance to shine. That’s a credit to Baitz’s script, as well as the direction by former Pioneer Artistic Director Charles Morey.

While the story is highly personal to the Wyeths, the questions addressed in Other Desert Cities are large, indeed. Watching the Wyeths tackle the issues eating at their family, issues easily expanded to reflect questions for Americans in general, is a joy in the capable hands of all involved with Pioneer’s production. It’s no light and fluffy night at the theater for the audience–but it’s most definitely a worthwhile one.

Other Desert Cities runs at Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre Mondays through Saturdays through Nov. 9. Visit Pioneer’s website for showtimes, tickets and more information. 

(All photos courtesy Pioneer Theatre Company)

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