devouring theatre, film, and food
It’s 2004 and a violent war is raging in the desert. In Afghanistan, young, fatigued soldiers fight against terror, but in a secluded West Coast mansion, a war of word wages between a strained family. Brooke, the daughter of two prominent old-school Republicans – Ron and Nancy are among the dropped names – has just written a new book. This should be cause for celebration — she’s a brilliant writer who’s just emerged from a 6-year depression-fueled writer’s block, but it’s not the novel Mom and Dad think it is. Her brother and aunt know it’s a memoir, exposing a dark, family secret, sending the five-member family into a Christmas from hell in the humid desert heat.
Whether Brooke’s new work is an expose for profit or her therapeutic life’s work is a question that hangs like smoke in the Chicago premier of “Other Desert Cities” at Goodman Theatre. Lauded during its Broadway debut in the fall of 2011, Jon Robin Baitz’s Pulitzer Prize finalist “Other Desert Cities” is a strong exploration of the modern blurring of the public and the private lives and how money complicates the matter even further. But this blurring has become faded in its translation to the Goodman’s Albert Theatre. Perhaps the bi-coastal themes (East Coast academics versus West Coast relaxers) resonate more strongly on the coasts, or perhaps the cast doesn’t quite carry the firecracker power of the NYC debut, but the Chicago show doesn’t live up to the potential the script holds.
Tracy Michelle Arnold’s depressed Brooke is a bit one-dimensional, and not until the final scene does it really feel as if she has fallen into her character. Deanna Dunagan and Chelcie Ross Lyman, both connected with August: Osage County (a similar family drama fueled by heat) are strongly suited to play the aging GOP matriarch and patriarch of the family. John Hoogenakker is delightful as the brother trapped in the familial crossfire. A Los Angeles reality TV producer, he is on the front lines of profiting off a family’s fights, and Linda Kimbrough’s eccentric substance-abusing Aunt Silda provides much needed comedic relief in the tense family drama.
But Henry Wishcamper’s direction has the cast swimming around the stage throughout the one-setting play – aimless, often lacking purpose, which seems to spill over into other character choices. Further, at the opening of the play, I felt something I’d never before in a theatre: I couldn’t quite hear the actors. Whether it was a technical amplification question or not, it felt like it symbolized a soft understanding of the characters rather than fully inhabiting them and sharing them with the audience.
Jon Robin Baitz’s script is funny and smart, and his jokes are able to overcome their sometimes soft delivery in the Chicago premier, but I couldn’t help but imagine what New York audiences saw and responded so passionately to.
“Other Desert Cities” plays through February 17, 2013. More information at http://www.goodmantheatre.org