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Review: Visiting ‘Other Desert Cities’ on the family plan

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Christmas has come and gone, but it’s not too soon to relive it with some good old family time. In this case, not your own family. I’m referring to the Wyeth family, gathering in their cavernous California living room for good tidings at Christmas Eve, 2004, in the Walnut Street Theatre’s “Other Desert Cities.”

 

These Wyeths – at least the parents –live a life of order, precision, discipline but most of all, appearances. The dad’s a former movie star turned GOP politician, the mom’s a former Texas Jew who talked herself into being a WASP sometime during her successful stint as a screenwriter.

With them indefinitely, at the family’s Palm Springs manse, is Mrs. Wyeth’s sister — her screenwriting partner in an earlier life and now, a drying-out basket case from the bottle. Plus, the lovely Wyeth children, the political opposites of their parents, are celebrating the holiday: a daughter educated at Bryn Mawr who, addled by depression, hasn’t published anything since her smash novel six years back, and a son whose Stanford and Berkeley education has led him to produce junky reality TV.

Hanging over them all is the spectre of the sibling who is not with them this Christmas Eve, the son who went off on his own and veered into an unspeakable radicalism.

This family is larger than life – and overwhelmed by it. Jon Robin Baitz’s play is both jolting and funny enough in the Walnut’s production, and will be funnier, and possibly more jolting, if the opening-night pace I witnessed picks up just a touch. Under Kate Galvin’s otherwise solid direction, a few poignant pauses call much attention to themselves. And the way the play’s last, revealing scene is staged makes it more of an appendage than a final exclamation point. (Can we ever lose the overused slowly fading finale lights that make us wonder if that’s all there is?)

But none of these are deal-killers, just dents, because “Other Desert Cities” is compelling, old-fashioned playwriting with a beginning, middle and clear end – and the Walnut’s production offers the sort of storytelling that reaches the play’s high bar.

It took me a few minutes to mentally run alongside Susan Wilder in her portrayal of the mom – I expected a more earth-motherish interpretation, as in the hit Broadway production two seasons back. That was my misconception – Wilder instead builds a woman chained by her own pretense and chiseled in ice, and the characterization gives the play a dimension I’d never imagined. Greg Wood’s portrayal gives the father a sort of vulnerability that he obviously never displays in public life, and forces us to imagine his public face and to appreciate a very private close-up.

The actress and singer Ann Crumb has good fun in the role of the auntie on the wagon, and although Matteo Scammell’s portrayal of the son is peacocky at times when he throws himself into exaggerated point-making, he remains convincing in what he has to say.

The toughest role in this ensemble falls to Krista Apple as the fragile daughter whose writer’s block has made readers wonder whether she was a flash-in-the-pan novelist. Apple has to convince us that she’s credible in seeking her parents’ approval for a Christmas Eve bombshell she’s about to toss. Apple nails it, in a role that requires a wide range of emotions, including self-doubt as well as self-assurance.

Nearly every family (or maybe even every family, but I’ll hedge my bets) harbors secrets and often, a public face that covers them. But what happens when the public face is so secure, the private one isn’t shown, even to the mirror? Baitz explores that question — just one big question in a richly layered play that poses many more.

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“Other Desert Cities” runs through March 2 on the main stage of the Walnut Street Theatre, on Walnut Street between Eighth and Ninth Streets. 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.

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