Other Desert Cities — You’ll Laugh, You’ll Cry

desertFA case could easily be made that there are too many plays about too many privileged white people bemoaning their fate in too many tastefully decorated rooms. The line from Chekov to Philadelphia Story to Gurney’s Dining Room to Albee’s The Goat is really a study in white privilege burdened by ever-increasing cynicism and mounting absurdity. The current offering upstairs at Warren’s 2nd Story Theatre is certainly no different, but Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities at least has enough of a soul to turn the mirror on itself often enough for us to drum up compassion for a family that seems marginally more concerned about their own consciences than their tennis game.

The Wyeth clan are, of course, very rich and very white, ensconced in their California digs funded by Hollywood money. Vince Petronio and Sharon Carpentier are fantastic as Lyman and Polly, friends of Ronnie Reagan and that particular breed of West Coast conservative that would seem quaint if it weren’t still dangerous. Their children, Trip (a casually nuanced Ara Boghigian) and Brooke (Rachel Morris, running on all cylinders in a cast that keeps up the pressure) have the usual maladies – depression, ennui, anger toward their parents, and a sibling lost to apparent suicide. Polly’s sister Silda, the aunt you can confide in, is, of course, battling alcoholism (in these families, the only difference between those battling addiction and those who aren’t seems to be whether or not you attend all those 12-step meetings). Brooke has returned from the East Coast to drop a bombshell. She plans to release her memoirs (aided on the sly by Aunt Silda) and call out her more or less famous folks as abusive parents who drove her departed brother to his suicide. And hilarity ensues.

Desert Cities is, actually, quite funny and deceivingly so for a script that gets quite dark and laden in metaphors about the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan and the self-imposed existential exile of Palm Springs. Like many playwrights today, Baitz has a footlocker full of punchlines in search of jokes and the Wyeths are generally quip machines, armed to the teeth with repartee that seems custom built for sitcom television. That humor is essential, though, to lighten what would be something of a slog as the matter of Brooke’s incendiary manuscript threatens to tear the family apart. The questions become larger than simply outing some misguided old-school patriarchs and we explore what Baitz terms the “consequences of art over life.”

In lesser hands, the jokes would prevail and we would cease to care about any of the Wyeths. Ed Shea and cast, however, carry the script to somewhere higher than the sum of its parts. For all of our laughter, we are deeply moved not only by the twists of the storyline but the increasing shift in balance between the ostensible champions of free speech and truth and those who would seem to be shallow vessels of oppression. Sharon Carpentier continues to own the stage at 2nd Story whether she’s upstairs or downstairs, but Joanne Fayan’s Silda is a standout and Vince Petronio brings the house to tears as Desert Cities unravels on itself. Ed Shea directs in the round with an effortless air, trusting the actors to compel us to watch even as their back is turned. Other Desert Cities may be another shade of white, but here, it’s the thought that counts.

2nd Story Theatre presents Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz through April 12. 28 Market St, Warren. Call 401.247.4200 or visit 2ndstorytheatre.com

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