Thursday, February 6, 2014

Family Matters: "Other Desert Cities" and "Death of a Salesman" face the final curtain

Posted By on Thu, Feb 6, 2014 at 4:07 PM

I'm at a loss to explain the tremendous critical acclaim that greeted Jon Robin Baitz Other Desert Cities . It's not a bad play, and I'm willing to concede that I may have missed the point. Also, the dialogue is often fantastic, even if the characters and plot both seem a little "paint by numbers."

The recipe for ODC is familiar enough. Start with a fractious family reunion (Christmas being the excuse this time), toss in some secrets, and one shocking revelation made in the play's last act that changes everything in time for a tidy epilogue ringing with forgiveness and understanding.

In a more complex work this revelation might begin a messy final chapter, or even start a fist fight, but instead resolution comes around easy.

ODC is set in the well appointed desert digs of an aging movie star who turned in his SAG card to follow Ronnie Reagan. Although we think of Hollywood as being liberal, it's had its share of New Deal-haters like Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart, and John Wayne. Lyman and Polly Wyeth, the one time Hollywood power couple at the head of this dysfunctional family are cut from the same cloth. These aren't Tea Partiers by any stretch, but a more enlightened set, and far more broadminded than the causes they wholeheartedly support. Lyman, strongly played by Jerry Chipman, was a mid-20th-Century leading man turned diplomat. His wife Polly, beautifully imagined by Irene Crist in the scenes where she comfortably knows her lines, was a successful screenwriter, and is now a Nancy Reagan clone.

This is a play where the Conservatives have their convictions (and a secret to support them), while the Liberals have substances, rehab, and an incomplete picture of what's really happening. The problems have less to do with any overt politics than the degree to which shallow characters fit stereotypes, and then live up to expectations.

Ann Marie Hall is effective comic relief as Silda Grauman, Polly's troubled free-spirit sister with an agenda of her own, and Christopher Joel Onken does solid character work as the more successful of Lyman and Polly's two living siblings.

The always reliable Kim Justis takes on Brooke, a one hit wonder author struggling to write about a family tragedy that she doesn't really know anything about. Her grief and struggles are the price paid to keep an inconvenient truth buried deep. Or not, as the case may be.

Other Desert Cities, nicely staged by Dave Landis, plays out like some half-baked answer to Arthur Miller's All My Sons only this time daddy was apparently a secret hero. I guess sometimes you have to rise above the law and destroy your daughter to save your son— and the family's good name. Or something.

I caught ODC early in the run, and assume that issues with lines have been cleared up in the time that's passed. There was a lot of potential on stage at circuit, but I was often more worried for the performers than the characters, and that's a problem. That said, it's almost worth dropping in on this show for Douglas Gilpin's pitch perfect scenic design. If you must live at the edge of nowhere, this would be the place to do it.

When it clicks Other Desert Cities is a lot of fun to watch. I'm just not sure it ever adds up to much.

Details HERE.

Eath of a Sales  n by Rrhur M l  r
  • "Eath of a Sales n" by Rrhur M l r

Speaking of Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman closes this week at Theatre Memphis. I don't have a lot to say about this production other than to repeat initial misgivings that it wasn't a good idea for Theatre Memphis to stage Miller's best known tragedy with the memory of New Moon's standout production fresh in mind.

I have to admit to having a soft spot for TM's old-school unit set, even if the lighting never effectively isolates the figures in space as they move from location to location and in and out of reality.

Director Tony Isbell assembled a first rate cast including Janie Paris who reprises her role as the matriarch of the Loman family. I'll never be able to hear DOAS's closing scene without thinking of her voice, although it will be from the earlier production rather than this one.

James Dale Green is one of Memphis' finest, but he seemed to be struggling under the weighty demands of WIlly Loman. I caught the show's last preview, and always assume that performance become richer and deeper over time. But on opening night eve the audience never got to see the flashes of Willy the contender necessary to truly believe that "attention must be paid."

As Bif, the goodhearted bad boy, Memphis actor John Moore proves once again that hard work pays off. Moore has been an ambitious fixture on Memphis stages for some time but being dreamy and comfortable on stage was enough for a lot of directors and given up for eye candy, bad habits calcified.

My first memory of Moore on stage is an indie production of David Mamet's fantastic American Buffalo. The show was loose and everybody was too young and too indulgent. The same artists would collaborate on a respectable if never fully realized production of Mamet's Speed the Plow at Theatre Memphis— and to be honest, I can't remember which came first but I remember American Buffalo more because it was scrappy. First impressions linger and even though I didn't love those early performances much, I gave Moore extra points for difficulty and that's what's kept me interested even when he's been less interesting.

Now and again a show would come along like The Little Dog Laughed, and he'd nail it. By the time he returned to Mamet in Glengarry Glen Ross, he was ready, and it's a shame that Ostrander judges failed to acknowledge his genuinely electrifying performance as a corrupt cop in A Steady Rain.

Moore's Biff is busted but bouncing back, trying very hard not to be the victim of the past and his own worst instincts. Scenes with Greg Earnest, who plays brother Happy were the show's most convincing on the night I sat in.

Salesman is Willy Loman's story but it revolves around Biff, and in this production, where Moore is especially compelling and others struggle, maybe a little too much.

Click HERE for the particulars.

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