Other Desert Cities from Arizona Theatre Company -- a Funny, Miserable Surprise

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The setup: Since 2014 began, it seems we theatergoers have faced down an awful lot of family dysfunction depicted on Valley stages -- especially if you count The Taming of the Shrew and Macbeth, which one probably should. You ought to hang in there for one more real masterpiece, though -- Jon Robin Baitz' 2012 Other Desert Cities, in the final week of its production by Arizona Theatre Company.

The buzz about this show has been strong, and I couldn't figure out why. Though the script was shortlisted for both a Tony and a Pulitzer, it didn't win. Baitz is a creator of television (Brothers & Sisters). Cities is supposed to be terribly witty and largely about the contemporary American political landscape. It didn't sound like the kind of thing the audiences I know would get excited about -- I mean, a lot of you/us do, but not huge crowds of subscribers-to-ATC sort of people. I thought.

See also: The Whale at Stray Cat Theatre Is the Must-See Production of the Season

The execution: Not only is this show gripping, fresh, and marvelous, the audience (BTW, the Sunday matinee audience -- I'm just saying, the subset of people who can't drive at night or stay up late has a lot of overlap with the subset that can be a tough room, in this town) loved it to pieces. Hearing an enormous, prolonged, rippling laugh for a line like this:

Polly: The only way to get someone not to be an invalid is to refuse to treat them as such. Silda: And there it is, folks: the entire GOP platform in a nutshell.

says as much about Phoenix's cultural evolution as it does about the excellence of Baitz' writing.

Considering how smart, show-offy, and articulate the entire fictional Wyeth family is, it's a shame that several individual words in scattered lines of dialogue don't carry past the first several rows of the Herberger Center Stage. Even if you don't usually use an assisted listening device at the theater, you might want one here.

Other than that, the performances are just beautiful. The framework's really quite simple -- Lyman and Polly Wyeth are old Republicans in Palm Springs in 2004, friends and analogs of Ron and Nancy Reagan, and their two adult children are home for Christmas, along with Polly's iconoclastic, alcoholic sister Silda, with whom she used to write Gidget-like feature films. Daughter Brooke is recovering from a major depressive episode and has just sold her second book.

When her folks find out that the book's a memoir, not a novel, they're livid. They're still alive, many of their friends and colleagues are still alive, and appearances and reputation have been paramount in the decades since the Vietnam War.

The consequences of speaking her truth promise to be devastating for Brooke. There's more to hide than even she realizes. Ultimately, she learns that when you realize you were mistaken about The Big Thing in your life, you can mourn the "wasted" years but also forgive. And in the end, with luck and love, you can even forgive yourself.

The characters' conversations are hysterical and range widely over enough topics to engage anybody. The actors shade all the nuances, including playing multiple intentions simultaneously without a misstep.

Ann Sheffield's tony desert home setting is stunning, evocative, and subtly incorporates chic minimalism (in decor) with impressive touches that are not strictly necessary (in design and structure). It's so lovely that I fell into the trap of studying the fireplace "stones" during an entirely competently performed scene.

One more thing to keep an eye on: Will Mobley's portrayal of Brooke's younger brother, Trip, a reality-TV producer. He slides into the periphery like a typical bro and sneakily builds to a masterful disclosure of his own wounds and remedies, neither more crazy nor more together than anyone else -- as each person in this story is, in intriguingly distinct ways.

The verdict: I have a friend who makes fun of the scene in Contact in which Jodie Foster is yelling, "I'm good to go! I'm good to go!" -- "So go," my friend suggests. That's what you need to do about Other Desert Cities. You've read all you need to. So go.

Other Desert Cities continues through Sunday, March 2, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. Tickets start at $40.50 and are selling strongly here and at 602-256-6995.

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