Noah Golden, Associate Connecticut Critic
In 2004, as war was waging in the desert of Iraq, another kind of battle was happening in the desert of California when the Wyeth family reunited for a tumultuous Christmas holiday. That’s the set-up for Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities,” a familiar but fully engaging play, that ran January 17-20th at The Kate in Old Saybrook. I know the theater well – I’ve worked on three shows there myself – but am new to the Saybrook Stage Company, having only seen their winning production of “Noises Off” some years back.
“Other Desert Cities” doesn’t have much in common with that backstage farce, but both plays did show off Saybrook Stage Company’s commitment to bringing high-level, polished community theater to the Connecticut shoreline. The first thing you notice upon entering is Glenn Bassett’s set, which has completely altered the fairly small concert venue. The wooden floors are now parquet; the awkward side-stages have sliding-glass patio doors. The stage has become a mod, 1960s home in Palm Springs, complete with a sunken living room, fireplace and art-deco decorations. Jon Robin Baitz’s play, which was a Broadway hit in 2011, hasn’t been offered such a noticeable directorial transformation, but it proved a very solid production of a very solid play.
Even though the house looks right out of “Mad Men,” the play opens in 2004. Brooke Wyeth (Mary Corigliano), once a wunderkind novelist, has had terrible writer’s block resulting from a disastrous marriage and a six-month stay at a mental institution. But a new book has been finished and she must go back home for the first time in six years to have her parents sign off on it. The book, of course, is not a novel at all but a memoir of her family. Dad Lyman (Jim Hile) is a well-known actor-turned-politician, who once ran the GOP and was best buddies with the Reagans. Mom Polly (Terri Corigliano), vain and acerbic, used to pen Hollywood comedies with her sister Silda (Leslie Singer) before becoming a right-wing philanthropist. After the movies dried up, Silda turned away from Republicans and towards alcoholism. Also in the mix is Polly and Lyman’s son Trip (Glenn Ghirardi), the producer of a trashy reality show, who seems on the surface to be just another Hollywood playboy resting easily on Dad’s money. Into all of this walks Brooke, a self-confessed East Coast liberal, dredging up family secrets and picking at old scabs.
A large source of pain for the Wyeths, beyond arguing Bush-era politics, is the death of their third child, Henry, once a member of a ‘70s radical commune. Details of his story are parsed out wisely by Baitz over the two acts, slowly unspooling the family mystery one piece at a time. Of course, reveal and catharsis comes before the final curtain and with them one of the play’s strongest moments when Brooke’s manuscript gets tossed in the air.
Long before the final turn, this “Other Desert Cities” has a strong, talented cast who do excellent work throughout. Mary Corigliano delivers a raw and lived-in performance, deftly shifting between rage and sadness, strength and vulnerability. She looks distractingly young for the part – Brooke would have to be born in the late ‘60s for the timeline to make sense while the actress looks like a fresh-faced recent college grad – but it’s clear to see why she was cast anyway. Her commitment and familial chemistry, especially with Ghirardi, also doing solid work, is a highlight of the production. Hile is uniformly exceptional as well, never overplaying his role or reaching for easy clichés. Singer and Terri Corigliano never quite reach the same level of depth or transformation in their work, although that could be somewhat a product of the writing. Polly isn’t quite given as much emotional shading as the rest of the Wyeth clan while Silva too often feels like a refugee from a sitcom pilot Baitz started but abandoned. The balance of the play is tough – “Cities” is both a Hollywood satire and a raw family drama rolled into one – although perhaps slightly more nuanced performances from Singer or Corigliano would have evened Baitz’s script out.
If the play is occasionally overwritten or draggy, that doesn’t nearly impede the joys of watching it. Overall, “Other Desert Cities” is the rare play that is both funny and smart, a family tragedy and a cultured comedy. It’s a wonderful choice for the Saybrook Stage Company and directed nicely by Glenn Bassett, who always keeps the pace moving. Having the play’s scene changes be underscored by an on-stage folk musician, Christopher Listori, who seems to act as Henry’s spectre, adds richness to the production as well.
Especially on the Shoreline, community theater seems relegated to large scale, family-friendly musicals. There is certainly nothing wrong with those entertainments, but it’s refreshing to see a group like this dive into a thorny and complicated work with such aplomb. I hope more companies follow in their lead.
“Other Desert Cities” has closed. It ran January 17-20th at The Kate in Old Saybrook, CT. For more on the Saybrook Stage Company, visit their website. “Other Desert Cities” by Jon Robin Baitz was directed & designed by Glenn Basset and starred Terri Corigliano (Polly Wyeth), Mary Corigliano (Brooke Wyeth), Jim Hile (Lyman Wyeth), Glenn Ghirardi (Tripp Wyeth) and Leslie Singer (Silda Grauman). The creative team includes Kaitrin Kinnare (Stage Manager), Mary Corigliano (Costume Design), Eric Chalupka (Lighting Design) and Andrew Mill (Sound Design).