The first act of the story plays out like a sitcom, with broad, well-timed quips and the suggestion of a harmonious, loving family. The impressive set, a stunning example of mid-century modern architecture designed by Michael Ganio, feels carefully planned and precisely calculated to communicate that a happy, stable family lives here. The superficial, easy-flowing dialogue and forced avoidance of conflict reinforces this cliché of near perfection.
As it turns out, this smooth plasticity is artfully constructed to draw the audience into a false sense of comfort, as the second act pulls back the curtain to reveal a family teeming with pain and complexity that cannot be neatly packaged. The result is an intense and deeply personal examination of love and family loyalty that twists audience expectations and still manages to deliver a surprisingly satisfying resolution.
Dee Hoty and Anderson Matthews are almost too perfect as parents Polly and Lyman. Tanned and smartly dressed, they play off each other skillfully, deflecting conversation and steering topics like seasoned political professionals. Hoty is tightly wound and determinedly focused, creating the sense of a woman accustomed to getting her way. Matthews is softer, but no less manipulative, skillfully deflecting conflict as he struggles to please both his wife and daughter.
As rebellious daughter Brooke, Celeste Ciulla, reveals a character that’s more an idealistic version of her tough, determined mother than she cares to admit. Ciulla subtly references Hoty’s gestures and postures, but with a sense of desperation and urgency that suggests an inner turmoil Hoyt would never allow to surface. Brooke is a talented and intelligent writer, but fragile. Unable to get beyond the death of her beloved older brother years before, she struggles with depression and has written, and sold, a tell-all family memoir as part of her recovery.
Younger brother Trip, a successful reality television producer, has only vague memories of his older brother, and Alex Hanna is remarkably smooth as he navigates his way among the family dynamic. Trip is often sarcastic; and though it first comes across as cavalier, it is clear that humor and deflection are merely his ways of coping with a loss he can never fully understand.
Glynis Bell, as alcoholic aunt Silda, is convincing as a woman who has turned to the bottle rather than the truth. Her hand in shaping Brooke’s memoir is an important lynchpin in the emotional context of the play. Her omissions of convenience nearly shatter Brooke, leading to an incredibly raw and powerful climax.
The first act establishes the characters and the tenuous family balance. There are hints of trouble and dissent, but they are merely sprinkled in, referenced and alluded to rather than discussed openly. The carefully polished sense of perfection is almost too easy and the production feels slow and unfocused. But the second act picks up the pace and intensity substantially, building steam as conversations turn from polite and pleasant banalities to accusations, revealing each character’s vulnerability and then pushing a bit harder.
The stark contextual and emotional difference between the two acts created an interesting dynamic. At the intermission I felt dissatisfied, the production seemed to be heading nowhere in particular. As the second act unfolded, however, I became entirely engrossed in the story. The contrast was quite effective, from a dramatic standpoint, but did leave me feeling rather like I’d seen two plays about the same family.
Director Steven Woolf does an excellent job, particularly with the second act. I wish the interplay between the characters in the first act felt less superficial, but the pacing is sharp and pointed, and the evolution of each character filled with surprisingly complex motivations that, ultimately, result in an emotionally cathartic experience. “Other Desert Cities” isn’t as neat and tidy as it first appears, making for a satisfying look behind the veil of perfection.
“Other Desert Cities” runs through March 9, 2014. For reservations or more information, visit www.repstl.org or call the box office at (314) 968-4925.