New Century Theatre’s latest production, Other Desert Cities, hits hard. It’s like the worst of awkward family Christmas reunions, and from the very beginning it’s clear that Mom’s claws are still sharp and they can scratch you at any moment. Brooke Wyeth (Cate Damon) is out in Palm Springs, visiting her parents.
It’s clear that things are going to be tense, as we watch her and her brother, Trip, (Sam Gillam), a reality TV show producer, gird their loins as their mother Polly Wyeth (Carol Lambert) slings her arrows. Isn’t this just like your family? She throws around words like “chink” and rails against ‘the Arabs and the Indians,” who to her are all the same–people to be feared and scorned. Just like the liberals. You see, Mom and dad are big Republicans, and they both were once in the movie business.
Playwright Jon Robin Baitz is a master of dialogue, and all of these very believable characters have great lines to deliver, but mom’s are especially venomous. “After five years I thought you had another novel in you,” she begins. Oh yes Mom, Brooke certainly does. The book in question becomes central to the plot as the daughter corrects her mother about how many children she had. “You said two. You mean three.” That third child, Henry, is the subject of much pain to everyone in the family, and is the topic of the book that Brooke is afraid to share with them all. Henry bombed a recruiting station and took his own life after his ideal
ism clashed too hard with his traditional family, staunch Republicans, during the Vietnam war era.
“Your generation, oh my god, it’s either meth addicts or vegans!” Mom says to her exasperated children. Aunt Silda pipes in, she’s not in a powerful place since she’s been sleeping til noon and with an alcohol problem she can’t make it without the help of the Wyeths whom she lives with. She too is aghast yet used to Molly’s bigoted outbursts.
Baitz’ dialogue provides many moments of humor, yet keeps us all in tune with the family tension. Brooke lives on the east coast, and Mom, Dad (Richard McElvain) and the sad drunken sister are all living far away, out west in the desert. We learn about Brooke’s breakdown, and hospitalization, and recovery with mom’s help.
They want Brooke to live out in the desert with them, but she’s a tortured soul with a lot of will and a stubborn streak. The book, we know, is about her parents and her wayward long lost brother Henry. Silda has been Brooke’s inside co-conspirator in writing the book, yet she too hasn’t been totally honest with her.
It’s clear that over the years Brooke has harbored great anger and hurt over what happened to her brother. Yet there is much more to the story, that is revealed as the father pleads, then begs, thenyells, at Brooke not to publish the book. We are enmeshed in a very tragic yet complicated story and despite the outward bigotedness of Mom, she knows more than her daughter does. IT’s a fascinating and perfectly choreographed plot twist that I won’t reveal.
Each member of the cast is believable, passionate, funny and damn angry about what’s happening on stage. This is the best show of NCT’s great 24th season. Go see it!
Other Desert Cities runs through August 9 at the Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts at Smith College. Tind out more at newcenturytheatre.org.