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Other Desert Cities

Politics can be a slippery slope in the theatre, the common pitfall being the creation of characters that are straw men for the playwright's views, or for the views of those whom the playwright is criticizing. George Bernard Shaw was a master at avoiding straw men. His technique was simple: write an essay that explores the issues he wants to dramatize and then find characters and situations in which the points-of-view that are expressed in the essay arise naturally in the course of everyday life.

Mike Hartman as Lyman Wyeth and Lauren Klein as Polly Wyeth
Mike Hartman as Lyman Wyeth
and Lauren Klein as Polly Wyeth
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
In Jon Robin Baitz' Other Desert Cities, now running at the Denver Center Theatre Company, we get the feeling that if a prefatory essay had been written, we would be watching a play much different than what we saw this evening. Baitz' backstory begins in the late '60's, an era of massive protests against the U.S. war in Vietnam, goes on to reference the Reagan years, 9-11, and George W. Bush, all from perspective of the Wyeth family, as they gather in Palm Springs during the 2004 Christmas holidays.

Lyman Wyeth (Mike Hartman), the patriarch, is a former film actor and U.S. ambassador under Reagan. His wife Polly (Lauren Klein) is a former screenwriter. They were both financially successful in Hollywood, though the quality of their output falls into the artistic netherworld of so-called B-movies. There are clearly a lot of parallels between the Wyeths and the Reagans.

Kathleen McCall as Brooke Wyeth and John Patrick Hayden as Trip Wyeth
Kathleen McCall as Brooke Wyeth
and John Patrick Hayden as Trip Wyeth
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
In Klein's sure hands, Polly is a matriarchal force of nature much as Violet in August: Osage County; she nearly steals the show: the gravelly voice and alcohol-shaded monologues are a wonder to behold! Hartman holds his own as a taciturn old warrior, defending "the American way" much as Reagan, John Wayne, or Charlton Heston did, with platitudes and self-righteous indignation.

Lyman and Polly's kids, Trip (John Patrick Hayden), a TV producer, and Brooke (Kathleen McCall), a writer, are erudite in a way their parents are not, even if their respective genres (reality TV and tell-alls) are as pedestrian as their parents' work. One is led to assume that Trip and Brooke are, most likely, Democrats; but, better yet, imagine their characters as stand-ins for the aberrant offspring of the Reagans, spilling the beans and challenging their parents' so-called family values with minds of their own, even if they end up falling not far from the tree. Hayden's relaxed Trip, the least conflicted of the bunch, is the padding on the walls, softening the bounces of his family.

(Left to right) Kathleen McCall as Brooke Wyeth, Mike Hartman as Lyman Wyeth, and Lauren Klein as Polly Wyeth
(L to R) Kathleen McCall as Brooke Wyeth,
Mike Hartman as Lyman Wyeth,
and Lauren Klein as Polly Wyeth
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
Although the story alludes to Brooke's breakdowns, these storms have passed. Her successful writing career has resumed and she has a contract to publish her latest book, a recounting of her family's darkest hour, when her oldest brother, an anti-war protester, is implicated in a bombing in which one person was inadvertently killed. Brooke seeks her family's consent to publish this memoir. All bets are off. McCall's bouncy girlishness is the lubricant that helps us believe she really didn't see the coming mêlée.

True to classical form, there is a fool who tells the truth: Polly's sister, Silda Grauman (Tracy Shaffer), her co-writer during their Hollywood heyday, whom she takes in and cares for during bouts of depression and alcoholism. Shaffer's Silda is a fun and unpredictable counterpoint to Polly, with nicely blended clownish moments to cut the tension.

Performed in-the-round of the Space Theatre on an evocative set by James Kronzer, the Wyeths circle each other, tossing barbs in a well-worn dalliance spanning generations. Despite the visual metaphors and absence of a fourth wall, the acoustic challenges of the space reduce the overall impact of the interplay.

(Left to right) Tracy Shaffer as Silda Grauman and Kathleen McCall as Brooke Wyeth
(L to R) Tracy Shaffer as Silda Grauman
and Kathleen McCall as Brooke Wyeth
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
But the biggest challenge of the story is to find compassion for Polly and Lyman, who, up until the totally unexpected twist, are hell bent on justifying the amoral and arrogant behavior of their powerful friends—the Reagan and Bush families. Even after the turn of the screw, we are left to wonder if Polly and Lyman's seemingly human choice isn't another means of protecting their massively inflated egos.

If we are to take the Epilogue at its word, Brooke is certainly pleased at the possibilities that may be in store for her once-embargoed manuscript, but the message of the play itself has suddenly been reduced to it most basic storyline, with its potentially liberating political discussion now marginalized. Perhaps if the two political parties were actually independent of the consolidated financial interests that they serve, such a conclusion would possess some ambiguous allure, but given the morally bankrupt forces that are being let off the hook here, we find the Epilogue more of a distraction than the light-bearing elegy which it could have been.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's presentation of Other Desert Cities runs through April 28th. For tickets: 303-893-4100 or www.denvercenter.org.

Bob Bows

 

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