Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Jon Robin Baitz's "Other Desert Cities" at IRT probes rich, fragile Southern California family

Translation is betrayal, runs an old Italian saying, the idea being that even smart, benign attempts to preserve integrity from one language to another are doomed.

Will Mobley, Anne Allgood, Lawrence Pressman, and Paige Lindsey White in IRT's "Other Desert Cities."
A family's painfully lived experience is like an original language, too. Events coalesce around idiomatic ways of doing things and relating to one another. How much greater a betrayal can underlie the translation of such experience into written, then published, form!

In "Other Desert Cities," that's what faces the Wyeth family of Palm Springs, with its Hollywood pedigree and glitzy social connections set against the long-ago disappearance of a brother and son who descended into a haze of drugs and jerrybuilt ideological fervor, then was implicated in an ugly crime.

Something is truly about to be lost in translation as daughter Brooke, visiting on Christmas Eve from the East Coast, confronts the family with her new work, a dreaded interpretation and recounting of what happened to her older brother Henry.

Her good reputation as a writer — one well-received novel, lots of high-impact feature journalism — has erected a fragile self-confidence upon her struggles with mental illness. Her medicated depression is rooted in unresolved grieving for Henry, whom she idolized. The memoir is self-therapy, and the family's prominence is likely to ensure the book's success in the marketplace. The unavoidable question Indiana Repertory Theatre's production raises: What will become of the family as a result?

Paige Lindsey White gave a riveting portrayal of Brooke in Tuesday night's performance, in which all five actors distinguished themselves with their mastery of Jon Robin Baitz's brutally exhausting script. Even the wisecracks and comic insights concentrated in the first act displayed an intense conversational flow. Under the direction of James Still, the cast didn't overplay the laughs. The serious business unfolding from the very first, with its banter comparing East Coast and West Coast climates, was kept in view.

The audience quickly becomes acquainted with the troubled household: The superficially complacent, bigoted mother Polly Wyeth, whose Hollywood career was highlighted by a silly series of light comedies co-written with her sister, Silda, now a recovering alcoholic; Lyman Wyeth, a smooth leading-man retiree, apparently rock-solid in how he chooses to present himself in the world; kid brother Trip, a TV producer who had been mercifully spared much of the family's anguish but is caught up in it now, thanks to Brooke's literary time bomb.

Director James Still not only has his cast unerringly get to the heart of these characters, but he also moves them fluidly in and about Ann Sheffield's stunning set, with its polished interior detail and large-scale, thrusting geometric forms. The Wyeths' living room captures the multimillion-dollar panache of Southern California real estate in Palm Springs and perhaps, as the freeway sign says, other desert cities.

These are restless characters, particularly as provoked by Brooke's plans to shine a light on their greatest crisis, and they need to move the way they do. Some of what could be the burden of the play's excessive talkiness is thereby relieved. Baitz makes every line tell, but "Other Desert Cities" treads the dangerous territory long ago staked out by Eugene O'Neill: Characters turn themselves inside out responding to each other. Their interaction is taken to the point of being an emotional purgative, and you may start to wonder if they have any interior life left after being so emptied.

Riding high on that risk, you could love the complexity Anne Allgood brought to Polly, investing so much in the family but in a perilously controlling way. Or the nobility, restraint and tender good humor of Lawrence Pressman as Lyman. Robin Moseley gave stature to the sloppy and endearing  Silda, a sort of Dorothy Parker type, with less of an honest relationship to Brooke than she pretends. And Will Mobley, whose role often called for him to react for long moments in between his passionate speeches, was sympathetic as show-biz careerist Trip, embodying the ironic truth that when you entertain people for a living, you have to fight to stay happy.

"Traduttore, traditore," say the Italians, getting a word play out of that home truth which, as if to demonstrate the maxim, gets lost in translation. In "Other Desert Cities," the betrayal is barely skirted, but only because there were resources in the original text only Polly and Lyman could access. Their revelation is stunning, yet fully in keeping with the relentless pace of fresh knowledge about these people that this production so skillfully provides.

(Photo credit: Zach Rosing)