© 2023 WYPR
WYPR 88.1 FM Baltimore WYPF 88.1 FM Frederick WYPO 106.9 FM Ocean City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Rousuck Review: "Other Desert Cities"

Chris Hartlove

Theatre critic  J. Wynn Rousuck reviews "Other Desert Cities" playing at the Fells Point Corner Theatre through February 8th. Here's her review:

A well-to-do, high-powered Republican husband and wife – former Hollywood royalty -- welcome their grown daughter home for the holidays. It’s the first time she’s been back since suffering a nervous breakdown. They’ve also taken in the wife’s sister, a recovering alcoholic. And their holiday is haunted by memories of their elder son, who committed suicide years earlier.

But in Jon Robin Baitz’s play, “Other Desert Cities,” what threatens to tear this family apart isn’t any one of those issues. It’s something new. Brooke, the daughter, has written a family memoir focusing on her brother’s death. Not only has the book been accepted for publication, but The New Yorker is about to publish an excerpt. Brooke, apparently, doesn’t say kind things about her parents in the memoir. And yet, she’s hoping for their blessing.

At Fells Point Corner Theatre, where “Other Desert Cities” is receiving an absorbing Baltimore premiere, Laura Malkus’ intensity as Brooke is balanced by Dave Gamble’s gentle, diplomatic spirit as her father, Lyman.

Like most of Jon Robin Baitz’s plays, “Other Desert Cities” has a strong political undercurrent. Lyman is a former movie star who went on to chair the Republican Party; his wife, a former screenwriter, has supported him with all the ardor of Nancy Reagan, her friend and idol. Their son’s suicide was tied to a violent act protesting the Vietnam War. And Brooke and her aunt, played by Linda Chambers, carry his standard as staunch liberals.

There’s a certain amount of speechifying tied to the characters’ political and personal agendas. Just about everybody gets a chance to launch into a meaty monologue or two. But it is a credit to Baitz’s playwriting and Michael Zemarel’s fervent direction that you get caught up in the storytelling in these speeches, not in rhetoric.

Storytelling – and the ability to separate fact from fiction -- is a central theme in this 2011 Broadway play. Brooke wants to unearth family truths in her memoir – a book that helped draw her out of her breakdown and writer’s block. But the thing about family truths – and memoirs – is that everyone remembers things differently. Add to that a couple of major secrets, and “Other Desert Cities” is part mystery, part family drama, part political debate, but mostly an examination of the lies, half-truths and buried secrets that color a family’s history.

Allegiances shift in the play, along with the record that Brooke is determined to set straight and commit to paper. Though she’d deny it, she turns out to have a lot in common with her unbending, tough-love mother, portrayed with a will of flint by Lynda McClary. Brooke expects to find an ally in her younger brother, a reality TV producer imbued with a laid-back, West Coast vibe by David Shoemaker. Too young to really remember his brother or the circumstances surrounding his death, Shoemaker’s character is the only member of the family capable of distancing himself and achieving perspective.

The play’s title, “Other Desert Cities,” refers specifically to a road sign on the way to the family home in Palm Springs. Obliquely, it refers to the war that Brooke’s parents support in a desert far from their comfortable California home – a home stunningly realized on stage by set designer Bush Greenbeck. Emotion is not recollected in tranquility in this household. It’s precarious but rewarding territory, skillfully explored at Fells Point Corner Theatre.

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years.