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Family Secrets and Lies Are the Subject of Jon Robin Biatz’s 2011 Off-Broadway Play “Other Desert Cities”

Theatre Raleigh's cast for "Other Desert Cities" includes (from left) Maggie Rasnick, Pamela Dunlap, Mark Phialas, Dana Marks, and Charlie Brady (photo by Curtis Brown Photography)

Theatre Raleigh‘s cast for “Other Desert Cities” includes (from left) Maggie Rasnick, Pamela Dunlap, Mark Phialas, Dana Marks, and Charlie Brady (photo by Curtis Brown Photography)

The Wednesday, June 18th, opening-night audience for Theatre Raleigh’s production of Other Desert Cities was too often subjected to very low volume, which may have made us miss a lot of the meat of this play. Somehow it never affected us as it was intended to.

We felt no affinity for the three main characters; and although the other two characters offered mild comedic relief, it only barely helped to redeem a sense of meaningful drama. Family dynamics have been a fruitful theme since the Greeks (remember Oedipus Rex?); but not all such family theatrics are equal, and this play has been compared to some of the greatest.

In our opinion, it is an unfair comparison. Other Desert Cities was often predictable, to the extent that lines could have been spoken from the audience they were so apparent. The actors worked at creating three-dimensional characters, but had little to work from: a celluloid father, a stereotypical angry daughter, a vapid mother. The other two characters were more fun, and brought energy to the stage; but their contribution to the plot was minor.

Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Biatz involves a writer who whose completed but unpublished memoir blames her parents for her older brother’s suicide. He was an anti-war activist; and the parents are still ultra-conservative Californians, retired famous actors in fact, who became ambassadors under Ronald Reagan. They are also Jewish WASPs from Texas, and the gathering of the family is to celebrate Christmas.

Director Jesse R. Gephart has staged his characters well, moving them appropriately, and helped the actors find what characterizations were there. He keeps the flow of action well paced. We think adhering to the playwright’s emphasis on conversational sitting-room speech often made whole sentences inaudible.

Daughter Brooke Wyeth is hyper-energetic and brittle as presented by Dana Marks, who gives the role a neediness and selfishness that isolates her from her parents, perhaps as her brother had before her. Charlie Brady plays her brother Trip, a successful producer of TV comedies, and expertly avoids committing his character to either side in the issues that ensue.

Silda Grauman, Brooke’s aunt and ally, is played with gusto by Pamela Dunlap, with savoir faire and earthiness; and she brings the entire energy level up each time she appears. Maggie Rasnick gives Polly Wyeth as much as she can, when she can be heard; but there doesn’t seem to be much character to fill out.

Lyman Wyeth is portrayed blandly by Mark Phialas, which may be the way the part was written, yet it felt as if he missed the highs rather than underplayed them.

The set and lights, which were designed by Chris Bernier, are very Palm Springs Kaufman House, bespeaking the status of the Wyeth family. They are well appointed and impressive. Costumer LeGrande Smith has clad the characters in up-scale casual attire, and Silda is showy in a fake Pucci.

SECOND OPINION: June 18th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/other-desert-cities/Event?oid=4179448.

Theatre Raleigh presents OTHER DESERT CITIES at at 8 p.m. June 21, 3 p.m. June 22, 8 p.m. June 25-27, 2 and 8 p.m. June 28, and 3 p.m. June 29 in the Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, Jr. Theater in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.

TICKETS: $27 ($25 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel).

BOX OFFICE: 866-811-4111 or https://web.ovationtix.com/.

GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-480-5166.

SHOW: http://www.theatreraleigh.com/other-desert-cities/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/1473998936169251/.

VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTk8vOxbIIE.

PRESENTER: http://www.theatreraleigh.com/, https://www.facebook.com/pages/Theatre-Raleigh/349124511834045, and https://twitter.com/TheatreRaleigh.

VENUE: http://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/venue/kennedy-theatre.

DIRECTIONS: http://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/directions.

PARKING: http://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/parking.

NOTE: This play contains due to adult language, and is intended for mature audiences.

OTHER LINKS:

Other Desert Cities (2011 Off-Broadway play): http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=4386 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Other_Desert_Cities (Wikipedia).

The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

Study Guide: http://www.guthrietheater.org/sites/default/files/playguide_OtherDesertCities.pdf (The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN).

Jon Robin Baitz (Los Angeles, CA-born playwright and screenwiter): http://www.newschool.edu/drama/faculty-bios/jon-robin-baitz/ (New School for Drama bio) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jon_Robin_Baitz (Wikipedia).

Jesse R. Gephart (Raleigh, NC director): https://www.facebook.com/jrgephart (Facebook page).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Martha Keravuori is a life-long theater artist — an actress, director, and stage manager — in North Carolina, around the country, and overseas. She has a theater degree from UNC-Greensboro, and has been active in the arts in Raleigh for the past 40 years. Martha is the retired executive director of the North Carolina Theatre Conference. Chuck Galle returned to Raleigh last year after a 17-year absence. He was active in community theater for many years, and directed the troupe of maximum-security inmates at Raleigh’s Central Prison known as the Central Prison Players. In New England, he performed on stage, on TV, and in films. He is the author of Stories I Never Told My Daughter — An Odyssey, which can be ordered on his website: http://www.chuckgalle.com/. Chuck Galle and Martha Keravuori review theater for Boom! Magazine of Cary. Click here to read more of their reviews for Boom! Magazine and here to read more of their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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