At the theater — 'Other Desert Cities' review

By Mary Ann Enloe | Feb 05, 2014

HART's "Other Desert Cities," written by Jon Robin Baitz and directed by Charles Mills in the Feichter Studio, begins as a pleasant little chuckler.

Two hours later patrons emerge awe-struck by what may be some of the most insightful dialogue written so far in the 21st century. Conservative California country club WASP Polly Wyeth, played spot-on by HART veteran Lyn Donley, drops names like Nancy and Ronnie as if she's expecting them for dinner.

The Republican fundraiser and her handsome husband Lyman, a retired film star and former ambassador who is played with just the right dollops of restraint, authority and pain by HART's executive director Steven Lloyd, are trying their best — or worst — to celebrate a family California Christmas.

Liberal daughter Brooke doesn't make that an easy task. Recently released from a mental hospital, Brooke has come from the east coast to get her parents' approval of her latest book, ready to go to the publisher. Sarah Lipham Woodard is Brooke. Mothers of liberal daughters will find memories in her message. The supremely talented actress has a BA of fine arts in acting and a BS in nursing from Western Carolina University and is an intensive care nurse in Haywood County, but she would be at home on any stage, anywhere.

Brooke's ally for Christmas in the desert is her Aunt Silda who wrote television scripts with Brooke's mother Polly until alcoholism rendered Silda more or less useless. Julie Kinter will be remembered from such diverse HART roles as Velma in "Chicago" and Sally Bowles in "Cabaret." Silda's droll repartee while trying to stay sober is both sad and clever. And then there is Brooke's brother Trip, a reality television show producer who smokes pot and curses.

Trip is played to perfection by handsome HART newcomer Ned Martin, remembered by many as a popular young United Methodist minister a few years back. Martin delivers his complex lines with both a natural ease and a fiery intensity rarely seen in someone who isn't a professional actor. Ned Martin is at home in front of an audience and HART needs him. This potpourri of players would entertain if the Pulitzer-nominated work had no hook.

But have a hook it does. Brooke thinks she knows everything about her dysfunctional family and she lays it bare in her new book. But she doesn't know much of anything. There is a secret. A gut-wrenching one. The audience begins this riveting journey with steady laughs at political jabs to both conservatives and liberals. It finishes the trip shaken to the core at what goes on behind closed doors.

As one patron was overheard saying after the standing ovation: "I am exhausted." The New York Times said of "Other Desert Cities" upon its Broadway run in 2011: "The most richly enjoyable new play for grown-ups in many a season." HART is holding the play over for a second week-end. This one has everything, and is appropriate for those 16 and older who want to see live theatre done the way it's supposed to be done.

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