Other Desert Cities – Palm Stings

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Other Desert Cities, Photo Courtesy: Fells Point Corner Theatre

A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE

I’ve read Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities and I…didn’t like it that much.  I thought it was overdone, overdrawn, a cartoon.  I found the some of the main characters flat and obvious.  I felt like the ending was soap-oparaish.  I had never seen it performed, though, before last night at Fells Point Corner Theatre.  And when I saw it, I felt real fucking stupid.  I felt like Baitz was sitting next to me in his thick black-rimmed glasses (thanks, Google images) going, “Duh, dude.  I write plays, not novels.  You have to be there.”  Because when I saw the play last night I thought it was absolutely, shockingly good.  I feel, however, that this magical alchemy would not have been accomplished without the exceptional work I saw on display last night.  Sometimes, the transcendent thing happens where every single element, everything, from the performances to the set design to the sound design to the direction comes together to make a one-in-a-lifetime event and that’s what I think occurred with this.  It really was that fabulous.  Cities is the story of the true fracture of the Wyeth family.  The elder Wyeths, Polly (Lynda McClary) and Lyman (Dave Gamble), are elegantly attired arch-conservatives in that kind of upper class, WASPY yet Jewish, Hollywood name-droppy way.  They belong to the country club.  They refer to Ronald Regan as “Ronnie”.  Polly, especially, seems awfully content with herself.  She supports the war in Iraq.  She does not support her daughter, Brooke (Laura Malkus).  From the minute that Brooke and her younger brother, Trip (David Shoemaker), hit the Palm Spring sands for their annual Christmas visit, Polly is zeroed in on Brooke.  She digs and needles her about everything from her failed marriage to her stalled book career.  It’s not that she doesn’t love Brooke, you understand, it’s that Polly is like a barbed wire fence that demands that you hug it and say that you like hugging it because it loves you.  Also tucked firmly under Polly’s razor sharp wing is her sister Silda (Linda Chambers), a recovering alcoholic with no choice to dry out under the watchful eye of Mommie Dearest.  It’s okay, though, because Brooke’s about to torpedo happy family time by announcing that she has, in fact, overcome her writer’s block by penning her memoir, a large portion of which focuses on her lost brother, a kid named Henry.  Henry, the big family no talkie, became a Vietnam-era countercultist and set a bomb off in a recruitment center before killing himself.  Brooke would like the impossible, which is that her mother and father, but especially her mother, will read her book and apologize for the Henry’s death and for how they are with Brooke and for favoring Trip and everything but still love and coddle and worry for their little girl.  Polly, especially, is not about to let her offspring have her cake and eat it too and then lots of make-you-shit-yourself secrets start pouring out.  Mike Zemerel, here directing, is clearly talented and I was really, really impressed by the way he makes the crazily intricate relationships between all of these people resonate on their own single strings and yet play together in a fucked up devil’s orchestra.  I guess some of the choices, especially the knowing glances between Polly and Lyman, could have been read as telegraphing, but I didn’t see it that way – I enjoyed the bread crumbs that Zemerel leaves for you to follow the trail to the ending.  The performances. were. phenomenal.  There is a reason that McClary is one of the first ladies of the Baltimore stage and this was it.  Every single thing she says, every moment she manipulates, bullies, cries, is pitch, pitch, pitch perfect.  She is the sun that the rest of the Wyeth universe builds around, and when she melts down, I think people felt it for miles around.  The moment she walks into the room after reading Brooke’s opus could freeze time and space.  I was especially into sisterhood as portrayed by her and Chambers.  I felt like they might really be sisters.  They had that thing where fights are so old they almost seem like endearments.  Polly is the chalice that holds, just barely, a poison that, if spilled, could end everyone forever.  Gamble, while not quite as intense, is frankly impressive in his own right.  His Lyman is a crumbling facade, a glue, a peacemaker.  Under his friendly face lies a deep uncertainty about the world, about what has happened to him and his family.  Gamble’s tigerish pacing, his voice, which somehow stays level and controlled even while yelling, makes us understand that there’s a massive vulnerability there, wounds that a thousand of repressive stitches have not healed.  Malkus, in the part that I thought played especially one-noted on the page, makes Brooke something pretty exceptional – I started the show seeing myself in her (the wringing of her hands, one of her “tells” of fragility even when she’s telling her father that she’s “like an oak”), moved to sort of hating her and then went back to being her again.  The journey of this performance was subtle, brittle, inhibited, with a genius and a purpose.  Brooke wants answers but she doesn’t.  She wants to be a little girl but is straining to grow out from under Polly’s massive shade.  She worships her mother as a god but she also might not pee on her if she was on fire.  It’s just fucking complicated and real and desperate.  It’s wonderful.  Shoemaker shines as bright as I’ve ever seen him.  The bar has been set high for him now and I will be watching now that I’m sure of what he’s capable of.  Watch his body language.  Trip is expansive, sure, but he’s also angry under that blank stare, he’s pissed at his sister for insisting on only surviving when he’s made the choice to live.  There’s a moment in the second act where Trip simultaneously rolls a joint and drops some of the most impassive, the most understated, the most truly angry truth on Brooke that I’ve ever seen.  Something about Shoemaker’s boyishness, his All-American looks and nice teeth works beautifully here because he works them beautifully.  Did I agree with every choice made?  Of course not.  As a wise man once said to me, “They’re actors, not machines.”  But the cast listens to one another.  They really, really listen.  They react.  They are the best thing about small theater – the ability to be up close and personal, to feel the real, to see the roughness.  The tech cradles the show and enhances it and is generally beautiful.  Set by Bush Greenbeck was impeccable – I especially liked the glowing blank blueness outside the sliding glass doors.  It gave the impression that the Wyeths are trapped on an alien planet, or at the bottom of the ocean.  Nod to Brad Ranno for the Beach Boys sounds that lightly dominate on the soundtrack which are a sophisticated call back and a great idea.

BOTTOM LINE:  Other Desert Cities is the show to see.  I think it’s so good that, if you want to see it and can’t afford to, e-mail me at emailthebadoracle@gmail.com and I will take care of it.  Easily the best thing I’ve seen in the last six months, and that’s not to drag the others I’ve seen, it’s to prop this show.  If you don’t see it, you’re depriving yourself, so do it.  Now.

Running at Fells Point Corner until February 8th

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