Review: Other Desert Cities by Austin Playhouse
by Michael Meigs

In an age when 'dysfunctional' all too often is appended to 'American family' in the U.S. theatre, Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities spends much of its two acts appearing to explore yet another meltdown.


Lyman and Polly Wyeth are prosperous California retirees with backgrounds in Hollywood and Republican politics.  Their children are several sorts of messes.  The older son got into drugs and then into political violence, getting implicated in a deadly firebombing before disappearing forever from a ferry in the waters outside Seattle.  The daughter, Brooke, a promising writer, wound up in a psychiatric institution and is only now crawling back to reality.  The younger son's a cynical survivor who produces a television show where small claims are decided by a retired judge and a jury of freaks.Rick Roemer, Lara Toner (photo: Christopher Loveless)


Just your average California family, so to speak.  And to add some zip, it's Christmas, and the recovering daughter has written a tell-all autobiography that she wants her parents to embrace.



Baitz's script is carefully crafted, loading us up with exposition over the first twenty minutes or so and only slightly stretching our creduility.  We're helped by Toner's casting, for Babs George and Rick Roemer give their characters good solid Republican self-assurance.  She comfortably inhabits the sharp-tongued, steadily bibulous mother, and Roemer radiates warmth and charisma, no doubt much like that of Ronald Reagan.   Brooke the wayward daughter is annoying.  She suffers from cognitive dissonance, determined to publish the exposé and yet wanting the victims of the revelations, her family, to approve the exercise. Lara Toner does the best she can with the character's whining intensity.


This is a spiritually amorphous California-American family, not anchored anywhere except in bourgeois comfort.  Polly is from a Jewish family, but she's not in the least engaged in faith; Lyman's a man of bonhomie and appearances. That is, at least in part, what the play's about: what is really important to these characters, deep down, as Polly threatens to punish their daughter by refusing to speak to her ever again?



Lara Toner, Jacob Trussell (photo: Christopher Loveless)Something's oddly uncomfortable in the chronology of this.  The principal action is set in 2004 in Palm Springs and there's a very brief epilogue afterward in Seattle of 2010.  The elder son was protesting 'the war' when he went wrong -- presumably the freeing of Kuwait in 1991. The Wyeths plead with their daughter to hold off publishing 'until after we're gone' -- but George and Roemer don't look to anywhere close to end-of-life (Alhamdulillah!, as they say in the Arab world).  With their evident good health and vigorous middle age (yes, yes, I know I'm repeating an earlier comment), the characters we see onstage are in the physical and mental states they might have enjoyed in the early 1990's before everything went so terribly wrong.



 That snarling and ensnarled triangle at the heart of the play stands in contrast to the minor characters, who are implicated outsiders with some trenchant things to say.  Aunt Silda the alcoholic (Bernadette Nason) is currently on the wagon and all the more sarcastic because of it. With that spill of orange hair and raspy New York Jewish accent, she's a pleasure to watch and to listen to. Son Trip (Jacob Trussell) escaped the contagion because he was very young when the eldest son disappeared.  Trussell is careful but vigorous in the role, portraying Trip as probably the healthiest person onstage.



Bernadette Nason, Babs George (photo: Christopher Loveless)



But back to Baitz and to the craft of playwriting.  His dialogue has cut and thrust with a lot of completely ordinary American expletives but not much imagery.  The title of the piece is the exception that proves the rule: it's taken from a speech in which Brooke wonders whether she should have simply turned the car away from Palm Springs and followed the cryptic road sign to "other desert cities."  But Baitz has built a very satisfying turn in his plot, with revelations that handily overturn the comfortable stereotypes we've been assuming of the Wyeths.  They have a story to tell, and when they finally do, it's a story worth hearing, one that goes to the fundamentals.


Other Desert Cities is current, it's contemporary, and it has something to say.  It's edgier than the usual fare at the Playhouse.  Considering that they're in the death-defying balancing act right now of moving from their previous relatively shabby rented quarters at Penn Field and securing all the permits and financing to build a four- or maybe even five-star facility at the Mueller Development, this choice suggests that they intend to do more than just serve comfort art once they get there.




Review by Jeff Davis at, January 28


Feature by Anne Norman at, January 28


Comments by Claire Christine Spera in the Statesman's Seeing Things blog, January 28 (368 words)

Review by Adam Roberts in the Austin Chronicle, February 7



Q&A with Rick Roemer on the Austin Playhouse blog, January 23

Q&A with Bernadette Nason on the Austin Playhouse blog, January 25

Click to view program for Other Desert Cities


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Other Desert Cities
by Jon Robin Baitz
Austin Playhouse

January 25 - February 24, 2013
Austin Playhouse
6001 Airport Boulevard
Austin, TX, 78752