Other Desert Cities
Playing at the Citadel Theatre, Edmonton, Alberta Canada
April 9 to May 1, 2016

Review by GRAHAM HICKS,  hicksbiz.com

In a 50th anniversary Citadel Theatre season that has exploded with so much theatrical brilliance -  Boom, Evangeline, Christmas Carol, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Alice Through the Looking-Glass and the upcoming West Side Story,  Other Desert Cities ranks as the season's only dud. 

There are a handful of great American dramas dealing with family dysfunction - heck, American playwrights aren’t comfortable unless they are hurling grenades at the All-American family.

But Other Desert Cities, playing at the Citadel Theatre through May 1, 2016, isn’t one of them.

This is a lightweight play delusionally convinced it’s a heavyweight.

Other Desert Cities has universal themes, dwelling deeply on the right, or downright need, of writers to express their beliefs and opinions no matter the emotional damage to others. It's explores the contrariness of family, how family members can be so cruel and vicious toward each other while still professing deep love.  And it’s as American as apple pie in its obsession with me, me, me - the world is all about me.

Yet it’s nothing but a silly play.   Playwright Jon Robin Baitz basically pastes the post-political life of American President and right-wing hero Ronald Reagan and his family into this show, including Reagan’s left-leaning and emotional daughter Patti Davis.

The playwright might as well have given them their real names. In real life, Davis painted her mother and father Nancy and Ronald Reagan in less than flattering terms in a published memoir. That’s the same story-line around which Other Desert Cities revolves.

The show drowns in messy family clichés. Estranged daughter is a tad cuckoo, had a prolonged mental breakdown, and is threatening to publish a scathing memoir of her politically prominent parents, ultimately damning them with responsibility for her older brother's suicide.

I cannot tell you if it was the script, the direction, the actors, or just one of those nights, but the show I saw was slow, and laborious, and turgid.  The actors could not find the show's underlying rhythms; the dialogue was so stilted as to be mentally painful. The cliché of “causes masquerading as actors” comes to mind.

The Patti Davis character – played by an actor relatively unknown in these parts, Liisa Repo-Martell - had but one gear all evening long, which was impassioned yelling.  No nuance here.  

The script was as self-absorbed as the play.  Messed-up daughter, messed-up relatives. Everybody but the decent dad (the Ronald Reaganesque character of Lyman) took turns accusing the others of not caring about anybody else.

While the emotional issues took the lead, clearly the playwright disdained the Reagans and their politics.  Venom drips off his pen for Republicans and their Palm Springs' ilk.  

There was no getting inside these characters’ heads. The playwright fancies himself as a cross between Arthur Miller and Neil Simon – every line had to be more clever than the one before. Which is why, I suppose, Other Desert Cities is misleadingly referred to as a “comedy”. It did not make me laugh.

That said, other than Repo-Martell, the other four actors did the best they could within the noose of this play. None could rise above the clichés, because their characters as written by Baitz are clichés. But they did their best.

The twist at the show's end is most effective in bringing home the lesson of passing judgement without knowing all the facts. And it was an attempt by the playwright to release his characters from the clichés he had made them out to be, to reveal their humanness.   Alas, it was too late.  The five characters, Lyman the dad, Polly the mom and Nancy Reagan facsimile, Silda the wreck of a sister to Polly, Brooke the wreck of a daughter, Trip the survivor of a brother, were too long steeped and shaped in caricature and cliché and quip.

It was too much of a stretch to redeem them in the dying minutes of the show. Even if he tried, I don't think this playwright, so caught up in melodrama, has the capability to write about real, honest human emotions.