Sunday, October 23, 2011

theatre review OTHER DESERT CITIES, Broadway, October 23

Jon Robin Baitz's new play Other Desert Cities, which opens on Broadway on November 3rd, started life last Winter off Broadway at Lincoln Center.  The show was a huge hit with a virtual sold out run so it is no wonder that with a slightly different cast it has made the move to Broadway.

Telling the story of a daughter and son visiting their parents in Palm Springs for the holidays, it is a play with many explosive moments, family secrets revealed and powerhouse acting by the five member cast.  Other Desert Cities stars Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach as the parents with Rachel Griffiths and Thomas Sadowski as the children and Judith Light as their aunt, Channing's sister.  Channing, Keach and Sadowski are all repeating the roles they played off Broadway earlier this year.

Daughter Brooke (Griffiths) who was a once promising novelist, has returned home with news about her new book which is set to be published very soon.  While her family is over joyed at this news as Brooke has had a lot of mental issues she has dealt with over the past several years that got in the way of her writing another book after her first one.  Those issues included hospitalization for a bout of depression stemming from the death of her brother thirty years ago.  However, once the family learns that the new book is about them and the very tragic event of the brother's death it also threatens to not only dredge up the events of the past but also possibly reveal many facts about their lives which is something that none of them are prepared for.  The issue that Brooke's memories of this event are very different from her parents is an impasse that none of them can get past, or can they?

Stockard Channing
All five members of the cast are giving simply amazing performances.  Channing and Keach as Lyman and Polly Wyeth are just as good, strong and possibly even better then they were last Winter.  Sadowski has also grown somewhat into the role, seeming less whiny and needy now then he was before.  But it is Griffiths and Light that are even better then their predecessors, Elizabeth Marvel and Linda Lavin.  This is Griffith's Broadway debut and I have to believe their will be a Tony nomination in her future for her performance.  Griffith is more even mannered with the appropriate build up to the explosive moments and less all hot or all cold then Marvel was, which adds to the realism of the play.  As much as I loved Lavin as the alcoholic aunt, Light is better in the fact that she is warmer but still just as biting, which makes the character more likable and more realistic.  Griffiths and Light also seem more believable as the daughter and sister of Channing then Marvel and Lavin were since they all three are tall and thin.

Rachel Griffiths and Stacey Keach
Director Joe Mantello has effectively restaged the play for the proscenium stage, compared to the thrust stage of the Mitzi Newhouse, where this played last Winter.  He has wisely staged much of the action toward the front of the stage but still effectively uses the back space as well. Mantello is one of the best directors working today and this play and his direction of it could earn him another Tony award for his directing efforts.

Some criticized the play last Winter as being a little too melodramatic or tv movie of the week like, as Baitz has spent a lot of time in tv lately with creating the tv show Brothers and Sisters, where Griffiths played a regular.  But I think this play is on the same par, or even better then a play like August: Osage County which was so melodramatic and soap operaish that it seemed to have every family issue possible squeezed into it.  So I had no problem taking the family journey that Baitz has written and actually enjoyed it even more the second time even though I knew what twists and surprises were ahead of me. The way Baitz combines realistic humor into the drama to make it an even more effective piece of theater is why I believe this is the front runner for the best Play Tony this year.

Griffiths, Sadowski, Light, Keach and Channing and the impressive set
While I first was concerned that the larger theatre and stage space of the Booth Theatre compared to the off Broadway run might detract from the connection to the characters and the play, I have to say the larger space gave more room for the piece to breathe.  And while I did miss the feeling of literally sitting in the living room of this family, the set design by John Lee Beatty has been retailored for the larger space and makes it actually more of a realistic Palm Springs house then the stage of the Mitzi Newhouse did, which at times seemed a bit cramped.  The large palm trees outside the windows and the very realistic lighting design by Kenneth Posner, who creates lovely stage pictures from a scorching Palm Springs hot and bright morning to an evening with the palm trees lite from landscape lights and the reflection of the water from the pool on the trees and windows, was simply gorgeous.  Costume designs by David Zinn are also gorgeous, and completely tied to the characters.

This is a limited run, scheduled to end on January 8th, but with the packed house at today's performance and the A list cast, I have to believe that this will get extended and still be running by the time the Tony's are awarded next June.  Expect this to be nominated for and possibly win several Tonys next June.

Lincoln Center Website

Clips from the original Off Broadway production-

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