Talented actors negotiate problematic script in Unicorn’s ‘Other Desert Cities’

03/12/2014 7:24 PM

03/12/2014 7:24 PM

The good news about Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities” is that it offers thoughtfully crafted roles for gifted actors. And that’s certainly what you get in the Unicorn Theatre production of this Broadway hit.

The bad news is that it’s an aesthetically conservative piece of writing that relies on the hoariest of dramatic conventions: the tear-stained Big Reveal, in which long-buried family secrets place everything in perspective.

The Unicorn show, directed by Sidonie Garrett, gets the most out of this tale of two old-guard California Republicans quietly tormented by the fate of a son widely believed to have committed suicide. Their tidy, seemingly relaxed life is shaken up when their daughter tells them she has written a tell-all memoir.

Baitz is a left-leaning playwright, so perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this play is his sympathetic portraits of Lyman and Polly Wyeth, fictional contemporaries of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Lyman (Jim Korinke) is a former film star who rose to the chairmanship of the California GOP and received an ambassadorship from his old pal Reagan. Polly (Merle Moores), a former screenwriter, refuses to be intimidated by anyone and speaks affectionately of “Ronnie and Nancy.”

Most of the play unfolds on Christmas Eve 2004 at Lyman and Polly’s stylish ranch home in Palm Springs. Also present is Polly’s sister, Silda (Jan Rogge), who is just out of rehab. With Polly, Silda co-wrote a series of “Gidget”-like comedies, but she apparently drank up any savings she ever accumulated.

Polly and Lyman’s son Trip (Jake Walker), a successful TV producer, has come in from L.A., and their daughter, Brooke (Cinnamon Schultz), has arrived from New York.

Brooke, a once-promising novelist, has recovered from a breakdown by therapeutically writing a memoir focusing on her older brother Henry, an unseen character whose troubled life haunts the entire family. The book has been picked up by a publisher, and Brooke brings copies of her manuscript, apparently because she hopes to gain a nod of approval from her parents.

That doesn’t happen. The problem, we should not be surprised to learn, is that Brooke doesn’t have all the facts.

This is a talky play, so much so that Act 2 seems to consist largely of long speeches as each character waits like a plane in a holding pattern to deliver his or her own soliloquy. There are flashes of anger, copious tears and the airing of long-held grievances.

Silda, a boozy liberal who could never stomach her sister’s politics, heatedly accuses Polly and Lyman of quietly allowing their party to be taken over by extremists. Trip strives to be a neutral if sardonic observer, while Brooke thrashes around looking for some semblance of affirmation from her parents.

The performances in this production can’t be faulted. Korinke, as he often does at the Unicorn, shows us that he can dig deep, although his acute timing gained through years of performing in light comedies certainly serves his performance.

Moores, who has been on a roll of late, delivers some of her best work as the sharp-tongued Polly, whose emotional armor cracks only in the play’s denouement.

Schultz gives us a heartfelt reading of Brooke, finding a fine balance between the role’s inner angst and external expressions of desperation.

Walker is spot-on as Trip, giving us a precise, seemingly simple performance that carries a lot of weight.

And Rogge brings a raucous sense of humor to Silda, delivering some of the best one-liners in the show.

Baitz has essentially written a drama that laments the deterioration of decorum and civility in an increasingly narcissistic society. This play was a hit in New York and praised by most of the professional critics. For my money, the conflicts and resolutions in this piece are simply too pat.

Baitz writes sharp, eloquent dialogue and creates reasonably complex roles that actors can sink their teeth into. But ultimately what we get is a family soap opera. And although it may seem to be about politics at first glance, the political content is so fleeting and oblique that it can easily be ignored.

This is a handsome technical production. Scenic designer Emily Swenson beautifully realizes a desert ranch home with sandstone walls, a fire pit and a built-in bar. Shannon Smith-Regnier’s costumes look store-bought but thoughtfully chosen. Alex Perry’s lighting is subtle and effective.

Onstage

“Other Desert Cities” runs through March 30 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. Call

816-531-7529 or go to UnicornTheatre.org.

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