Tuesday, January 22, 2013

NEWCITY REVIEW: 'Other Desert Cities' at The Goodman Theatre

Photo by Liz Lauren
No one ever told Deanna Dunagan “those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” Just examine some of the actress’ most recent characters. At the weakest junctures in their lives, they revel in the thrill of throwing some size stone, be they pebbles like Madame Armfeldt’s sage interjections in “A Little Night Music” or Violet Weston’s boulders of venomous insult hurled at her closest kin without remorse in “August: Osage County.” Of course, those characters spent their snarky days in sprawling country estates and boarded-up Oklahoman crypts.
Now residing in a contemporary Palm Springs home with walls made of mostly glass, maybe Dunagan has finally learned her lesson in “Other Desert Cities.” But in Jon Robin Baitz’s play, which opened on Tuesday night at the Goodman Theatre in an endlessly entertaining production directed by Henry Wishcamper, her character’s defenses are so ironclad that, despite her home’s literal fragility, Polly can launch verbal weapons of mass destruction at will without a smidgen of fear of retaliation. Dunagan’s brutal Polly is Nancy Reagan-cum-Mary Tyrone, as frightful a theatrical creature as ever there was.
Framed pictures of Nancy and Ronald are clumped into a corner of Polly and Lyman Wyeth’s (Chelcie Ross) home—recalling Californian wealth of yore or, perhaps, “Boogie Nights”—along with other photographic glimpses into the couple’s glamorous past. Lyman met Ronnie when the two men were both fresh-faced Hollywood stars, and later when Ronnie became president he made his buddy an ambassador. The politics of hypocrisy and the hypocrisy of politics make an early entrance in Baitz’s play.

Hidden away from the photos of movie stars and famous politicians, in a dimly lit hallway, is a single portrait of the couple’s dead son, Henry, who became associated with an extremist group in early adulthood and killed himself shortly thereafter. Decades later, his presence still hovers ominously over the home while his brother, Trip (John Hoogenakker, brilliantly releasing tension), a Berkeley grad-turned-reality TV producer, and New Yorker sister Brooke (Tracy Michelle Arnold) descend on the desert to celebrate Christmas with mom, dad and peppy Aunt Silda (Linda Kimbrough), recently out of rehab.
While the family history of Baitz’s play is undoubtedly macabre, “Other Desert Cities” itself lies somewhere between “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and “The Importance of Being Earnest” in the canon of well-kept-secret stories. The playwright’s dialogue will be bristling along gleefully from quip to quip like the sharp witticisms of Wilde’s Lady Bracknell or Shaw’s Lady Britomart, when, all of a sudden, what you thought was a harmless joke bores into the recipient like a sledgehammer. After one of Dunagan’s particularly stinging zingers, a gentleman behind me quite loudly expelled a “woof.”
Most of the “woof”s are drawn out by Polly, a traditionalist who believes in the sacredness of behind-closed-doors activity. Although she begins as a domineering, judgmental über-conservative mother, she’s generally harmless enough. When it’s revealed that author Brooke’s new novel is, in fact, a memoir, detailing the events surrounding her late brother’s death and the role Polly and Lyman’s cruel parenting had in it, Dunagan really lets her claws come out. Chelcie Ross’ Lyman is a strict father, but he allows streaks of love and feeling to penetrate his otherwise stern mask. Polly is spiteful and vigilant.