Thursday 26 September 2013

Other Desert Cities reminds of Streetcar &c.

To 2013 Americans, a family showdown at Christmas between retired Depression-born Republican parents and Democrat GenX children might seem trite. Not so much perhaps for Canadians accustomed to Handshake Dad Steve Harper. So ACT's Other Desert Cities that opened last night will likely find enthusiasts of various ages in Vancouver.

The script by Jon Robin Baitz neatly captures Count Leo Tolstoy's insight at the start of his novel Anna Karenina : "Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Plot Overview Meet the Bickertons, er, the Wyeths,  gathering in Palm Springs, 2004, a year after George W. Bush and his fake WMDs scammed the U.S. into the Iraq war. Daughter Brooke (Anna Galvin) swoops home from Long Island after a 6-year interlude trying to write a second "promising" novel. Only to get pock-marked by writer's block, depression, and hospitalization at a Harvard hospital. Shortly she announces she's written a memoir instead -- about the suicide of her brother Henry at age 15 after he'd got caught up with Weather Underground-style anarchists. A bomb they built "accidentally" killed somebody at the Venice City army recruiting office c. 1974 at the same time Nixon was carpet-bombing Cambodia. Henry freaks and flees. A suicide note is found in a discarded shoe of his on a Black Ball ferry out of Seattle, though his body never did wash up.

As powerful blue-blood Republicans who were personal friends of President-to-be Ronnie Reagan and wife Nancy back in the day, mom Polly (Gabrielle Rose) and dad Lyman (Alan Gray) clearly would prefer Brooke not scrape away madly at their scar tissue and re-aggravate such a grievous family wound via her memoir. There are family appearances and reputations at stake, don't you know. For her part, Polly's alcoholic sister Silda (Gwynyth Walsh) delights to catalyze all the crackly interpersonal snipes and jibes that gush out of these people. Baby-of-the-family son Trip (Benjamin Elliott) tries, unsuccessfully, to act as peacemaker.

First impressions :  ODC is all about its dialogue. Lovers of Neil Simon-style clever smart-ass commentary a la that in The Odd Couple will find much to amuse. A typical Trip observation refers to the boozy, increasingly resentful reunion as a "stiff upper-lipped thermonuclear family war". Such stuff resonates throughout, mostly from mom. Dad, a former 'B' movie actor and Reagan-appointed ambassador, pines for his past : "Maybe I prefer acting, with my lines written down." Polly says of her neurotic daughter Brooke : "There are lots of locked doors in her doll house." Of sister Silda she remarks : "Families get terrorized by their weakest members." Of the constant bickering, Polly says : "Acting or real, the two are hardly mutually exclusive in this family." Trip says of Brooke : "You think being depressed makes you 'special'; your depression makes you banal." Brooke dismisses the family : "I am so tired of the indentured servitude of family." On a superficial level this is potboiler stuff, but Tolstoy's "own way" dictum for unhappy families imagines the possibility of love behind all the anger and angst and corrosive byplay being rhymed off on-stage. And ultimately does reveal itself.

What happens, what doesn't :  The first act starts out agreeably enough with the family playing tennis together. When they get home, the character development starts innocently. Brooke calls the endless sunshine of Palm Springs "ridiculous". Mom Polly is revealed as a faux-Texan who's really a countryclub Jew -- a wannabe goy -- and acts like one to a fault.  Trip writes and produces "Jury of Your Peers", a reality t.v. show that dad dismisses, airily, as a show where "being right or wrong is less relevant than being funny".

Shortly, however, the verbal knives come out between Brooke and Polly, primarily, with Silba also exchanging zingers and challenges with her sister. (Once upon a time they co-wrote schlock Hollywood screenplays together.) During the VietNam era Republicans stood for the proposition "My country right or wrong!" During the post-9/11 epoch, Republicans seem to endorse Polly's views that include : "I don't like weakness." "The world can die of too much sensitivity." "I hate to be fair." "Children today want a free pass." Silba, for her part, counters: "Your politics are offensive to normal people; you goad people with them." 

This flip-flop between Simon-esque glibness and family character assassination continues, troublesomely, throughout the play. Is this situation comedy Robbie Baitz wants us to enjoy, or is this more Streetcar Named Desire stuff or that of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Finally comes the climax of the second act that propels the script more toward the latter than the former. 

Brooke, pig-headed like her mother Polly, insists she's going to go ahead and allow the New Yorker to serialize her memoir starting two months hence. Polly claims that would be a betrayal and would destroy the family and would put an end to her "love" for her daughter. Normally mild-mannered diplomat dad Lyman concurs -- his "love", too, is conditional. He asks that Brooke defer publication until after he and his wife have died. If she goes ahead, her doing so will result in her permanent banishment from his version of the family. Still Brooke threatens to go back to New York to do just that. At that point Lyman cracks, and out comes the great family secret that changes everything. BLR would serve no useful purpose to provide this plot-spoiler.

Character take : Director Rachel Ditor calls ODC a "well-made play" whose script carries the night. "Casting might be the most important decision a director makes," she declares in the program notes. "The closer you can get to really hearing the rhythms in the writing, the tone, the humour, the author's interests, the stronger your production will be." 

Okay, let's start there. It's the rhythms in the casting that don't always work here. Particularly so with Rose as Polly. From her opening line she doesn't project her character so much as shout! it. Her delivery throughout, until the climax, is about 10 decibels louder than anyone else's and was distracting rather than engaging. She brought to mind Ken Kesey's character Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Off the page of Kesey's book Ratched shouted and stormed. In the excellent Milos Forman movie adaptation, by comparison, actress Louise Fletcher made Ratched 100-times more sinister by being restrained, controlled, more visceral than loud. So needs Polly's character to be.

As Brooke, Galvin displays the part of neurotic daughter writer histrionique with gusto, but not much subtlety except with some scenes with Elliott as Trip. For his part Alan Gray's dad Lyman was a journeyman mix of loving father / struggling patriarch / victim of his times then and now.

Two best performances i.m.o. were from Walsh as Silda in her depiction as the alcoholic in whom in vino veritas spews forth regardless even as the dry drunk she now is. Highest kudos, however, go to Elliott as Trip. His dialogue captures the play's best themes due to his delivery, as when he challenges Brooke : "You mean art comes before life? Losing the trust of the people you love for the sake of these opinions of yours?" Or to the entire family near the end : "I just see that we all live with each other's divergent truths." And : "As you take your last breath all that will have mattered is how much you loved, that's it." 

Production values : Set designer Amir Ofek wins the prize for his clever 60's stage-wide set of Palm Springs : acorn fireplace in front of floor-to-ceiling syncopated sandstone flatbrick. Rectangular squat chairs and settees. IKEA liquor cabinet of ersatz wood. Built-in wall-length bookshelves with pix of Nancy and Ronnie. Cantilevered steps out to a swim pool that shortly slides under the living room floor to bring the action closer downstage. 

Costume designer Drew Facey executed well, overall, but why Lyman's signature blue blazer was two inches short in the body -- off-the-rack from Zellers instead of Brooks Brothers tailor-fit -- I just can't fathom. 

Choice of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" as background was just right except for selecting some anonymous contemporary cover group rather than using the original score by the Boys themselves. God only knows indeed.

Who gonna like : Folks who like family squabbles or feuds or dysfunction as their preferred fare -- I love such stageplay! -- will come away not displeased by this energetic and eager but somewhat flawed production. While uneven, the Baitz script is nevertheless worth a listen and plays out well on the Ofek set that spans the Stanley stage. 

Follow me on Twitter @bairdreviews

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