We’re having a bad time in the US of A. Our economy stalled trying to go uphill while shifting gears from steel to silicon — our two-party system’s being held hostage by a handful of homegrown terrorists — and the “American Century” has turned to ash amid desert wars and climate collapse.
Drama should be dealing with this. We need plays that examine what’s gone wrong, and why — and how it’s reaching into and tearing up our private lives. To their credit, International City Theatre is presenting a play that tries to take on the task.
Alas, Other Desert Cities doesn’t quite do it.
Director caryn desai has considerable resources at hand in Long Beach’s lushly appointed flagship facility, a team of experienced tech artists and an energetic, seasoned acting troupe. But their work, though often on the mark, is also often off.
JR Bruce’s scene design starts things off oddly. Flat, neutral-toned surfaces say “money,” but not “Palm Springs.” Except for a silhouette of mountains behind patio doors, we could be on Park Avenue. (The tennis-clad loungers we first meet don’t dispel the uncertainty: Is this a serious drama, or just Noel Coward west?)
More fundamentally, Bruce has put a tall bar and a dropoff upstage right — so no actor can occupy or speak effectively from the stage’s most powerful position. Instead, a large platform extends in front of the fireplace upstage left. OK. But then, unaccountably, almost every time a character reaches a major speech, director desai moves him or her off the platform into the downstage “conversation pit.”
This unfortunately accents one of the script’s major weaknesses. Author Jon Robin Baitz, who’d just spent several years writing a TV comedy, reaches again and again for one-line quips to cap his characters’ key speeches. He gets laughs, but undercuts the social and personal issues he has put on the table. Combined with desai’s blocking, the message comes out as, “This is really important, our lives and our world depend on it — but let’s just go to the mall.”
Baitz’s play has a similar structural problem. Like a sitcom, it peaks about three-fourths of the way through, leaving just enough time for some quick wrap-ups and a closer. This does a violent disservice to the characters. They need time to come to terms with cruel family secrets, and with how the world’s woes have invaded and disfigured their home. We need time to experience them doing it. What we get instead is instant forgiveness and cheap grace.
Blake Anthony Edwards has perhaps the best-written role, the homme raisonable, and he turns the few one-liners forced on him into a self-mocking attempt to mask despair. Suzanne Ford and Nicholas Hormann pour passion into the brittle parents, but can’t overcome the author’s refusal to look into what their posturing has cost them. Eileen T’Kaye takes her recovering addict as deep as — and at moments deeper than — Baitz’s sketch allows, adding weight to the too-easy wit written for her. And as the central figure, whose tell-all memoir breaks the family’s fragile balance, Ann Noble works gamely at giving us a woman upon whom innocence has been inflicted.
With firmer direction, these actors might all have gone deeper. But soon, they’d need to rewrite the text. And that’s precisely what workshops, as tedious as they may seem, can do for a play. By taking the story seriously, and pushing as far as they can, a company can show a playwright where the pen has more digging to do.
This play is named for an unusual Interstate 10 freeway sign that says drivers can take the Palm Springs offramp or go on to other, unnamed towns in the desert. Baitz, perhaps fearing the unknown, turned off too early. His play needed a lot more time on the road before getting to New York. Or even Long Beach.
(NOTE: Other Desert Cities fast-laned onto Broadway in 2011, after a short off-Broadway run. It was nominated for a Tony and for a Pulitzer. There’ve been some scanty crops in Manhattan’s “Great White Desert” lately, but that must have been a really bad year.)
Other Desert Cities, by Jon Robin Baitz, directed by caryn desai.
International City Theatre, at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd.
Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm, through June 29.
Tickets: <www.InternationalCityTheatre.org> or (562) 436-4610.