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Theatre review: Other Desert Cities pays off in act two

There is a huge pay-off in Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, currently on stage at the Arts Club’s Stanley Theatre, but it takes a whole act to get there.

It is Christmas Eve 2004 at the Wyeth house.  Daughter Brooke (Anna Galvin) the writer, has flown in from New York and son Tripp (Benjamin Elliott) has taken a break from his LA-based reality television series to make the trek home to Palm Springs to spend the holidays with their parents’ home, former Republican darlings and movie stars Polly (Gabrielle Rose) and Lyman (Allan Gray).  If holidays with the family aren’t stressful enough, Brooke has brought home her latest manuscript, a tell-all tale of the death of her older brother who was implicated in the bombing of an army recruitment centre and his subsequent suicide.

Act one spends much of its time talking about what “might” be in Brookes’ new book, but rather than jump at the opportunity to simply read what she has written, the family spends a great deal simply guessing what it might contain.  For the audience, it gets boring really fast and much of the comedy falls flat as it comes at the expense of anyone that doesn’t fall into Polly’s narrow Republican view.

Act two simply shines though after everyone has taken the time to actually read the book.  The tension is palpable and the comedy takes a back seat to some genuine moments between the family members.  As act two opens, Galvin even takes on some of her mother’s characteristics in an almost chilling realization that we really do become our parents.  As the big family secret is finally revealed (I dare you not to whisper to yourself “here it comes”), the pain that both Rose and Gray feel is in contrast to the façade that never rings true in the first act.

Anna Galvin and Allan Gray in the Arts Club Theatre Company production of Other Desert Cities. Photo by David Cooper.

Anna Galvin and Allan Gray in the Arts Club Theatre Company production of Other Desert Cities. Photo by David Cooper.

Amir Ofek’s set design is a sight to behold with its gorgeous mid-century feel.  Having made some comments about previous Arts Club productions skimping on sets in the past, this is one that will be hard to ignore come next year’s awards season.  Adrian Muir lights it all beautifully, capturing the endless sunshine that Brooke tried to escape.

Ironically my father and his wife now spend the winters in the Coachella Valley in one of those “other desert cities”.  And while my father was no movie star and would not be on a first name basis with the Harpers, his Conservative ties make his politics and view on life (he may not use the word “Chink” but his vocabulary still includes “Orientals”) on par with the Wyeth’s.  I’ll use Other Desert Cities as a cautionary tale of what a holiday in Palm Desert with my family just may very well be like; I think I’ll continue to brave Vancouver’s rainy December.

Other Desert Cities

By Jon Robin Baitz.  Directed by Rachel Ditor.  An Arts Club Theatre Company production.  On stage at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage through October 20, 2013.  Visit for tickets and information.

Mark Robins on Google+

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