Other Desert Cities tells the story of Brooke Wyeth (Liisa Repo-Martell), a writer who returns to her parents’ home for Christmas and shares her latest manuscript with them—a memoir about her brother Henry, who committed suicide 20 years earlier. When Polly and Lyman Wyeth (Deborah Kipp and Robin Ward) don’t react with the unfailing support that Brooke has come to expect from them, the Wyeth family Christmas becomes a bloodbath of buried secrets and long-festering resentments.
Although the climax of this family drama delivers a riveting revelation, Other Desert Cities is otherwise a surprisingly uninvolving play. The scenes before the grande finale don’t really build up to it, instead just slogging through clunky exposition—like when Brooke tells her brother Trip (Derek Moran) about Henry’s past, which he definitely knows about already.
The show is always reaching for something deep and poetical to say, with actual lines like “I am California!” that feel at once pretentious and fake. A lot of this falls on Jon Robin Baitz’s script, which prefers its characters to make grand statements rather than to merely talk.
Unfortunately, the artificiality of the script is only intensified by the delivery of the dialogue. The actors don’t speak so much as speechify, and Repo-Martell in particular prefers to bellow rather than to banter.
This tendency to overact an overwritten script is especially apparent in a small exchange where Trip hands Brooke a joint. For just one second, Moran drops his voice and says “have some” as an off-the-cuff remark. These two words shatter the grandiose style, and give us a tiny glimpse of the play that could’ve been if the messy emotional subject matter was actually allowed to get messy.
To be fair, the overwrought style works well for some of the actors. Kipp in particular is wickedly hilarious as Polly Wyeth, a sort of Lucille Bluth-Emily Gilmore type whose nature is very performative to begin with.
But ultimately, Other Desert Cities feels as sterile as its title suggests. The play has an engaging story to tell, but it’s trapped beneath a barren, smooth, overly polished script and actors who deliver thunderous speeches in booming tones rather than engaging with the muddy, fertile humanity of their characters.
Until Sun, May 1 (7:30 pm; 1:30 pm Sun matinees)
Directed by Brenda Bazinet
Citadel Theatre, $25 – $100