Chomping into Jon Robin Baitz’s meaty dysfunctional family-drama “Other Desert Cities” takes sharp teeth. Thankfully, some nice knife-edged incisors are bared in the new StageWorks Fresno production, which continues for one more weekend at the Fresno Art Museum’s Bonner Auditorium.
The strongest bites belong to Greg Ruud and Tessa Cavalletto, who offer fiercely felt performances in this tale of a family coming to terms with a rebellious grown daughter. The opening-night performance was uneven at times in terms of acting and did not reach the heights of the rest of StageWorks Fresno’s stellar 2015 season – a high standard of comparison – but the production is still compelling.
On a balmy Christmas Eve in 2004, Ruud’s Lyman Wyeth, a former movie star turned Republican party mover and shaker, is overjoyed that his daughter, Brooke (Amalie Larsen), a novelist, has returned to the family home in Palm Springs after six years. She brings with her a lot of emotional baggage, including a stint in a mental hospital, along with a new manuscript she just completed that is destined to roil the holiday.
Her brother, Trip (Ryan Ruhl), who produces a schlocky reality courtroom TV show, is there, too, and there’s a sense of the generations banding together against each other as Lyman and his wife, Polly (Kate McKnight), a bruisingly tart and unsentimental mother, interact warily with their offspring.
Rounding out this not-so-merry band is Silda Grauman (Cavalletto), Polly’s sister, who wrote movies with her until their animosity torpedoed their screenwriting partnership. A recovering alcoholic and a bit of an overall wreck, Silda seems to be testing the adage that blood is thicker than water as she relies on her sister for a roof over her head.
Joel C. Abels, who also designed the luxurious looking Mid-century modern set, offers brisk and steady direction, but he can’t keep the lengthy first act from feeling a bit flabby. There’s a definite payoff after intermission, however, when family secrets begin to emerge, twisting into a tense revelation.
Ruud, as the father, gives an understated yet deeply felt performance as his feelings toward his daughter clash with an instinct for self-preservation. Cavalletto, in a role stuffed with showiness and snark, gets many of the show’s laugh lines, but when it comes time to get serious, she excels at quickly slipping into her own Machiavellian instincts.
Larsen delivers a sturdy performance, but she doesn’t slip into this role with the organic ease with which I’ve seen her inhabit characters in many of her other Fresno productions. I’m not sure why, but she just didn’t click with me in this one.
McKnight was moderately successful on opening night finding the cadence and confidence of the icy Polly, but she struggled in some monologues, and I kept wanting more precision and vehemence to the role. Ruhl, as the brother, struggled at times with his delivery and finding the depth of his character.
Bob Creasy captures a sense of the casual stuffiness of Palm Springs with his costumes.
While “Other Desert Cities” makes its mark as an excavator of dark family secrets, there are other ways that Baitz engages the audience. It jumps between memories of the Vietnam war to the current Iraq War, causing inevitable comparisons. It brings geography into the mix, musing on the “Californianess” of its characters.
And its back-and-forth volleys of political partisanship – the staunchly Republican parents battling their more liberal children in ways both amusing and deadly serious – is something of a premonition of more raging battles today. (In fact, the “zealotry” of 2004 seems positively quaint in 2015.)
Most interestingly, the play offers an interesting take on memory. Brooke’s recollections of her family, detailed in her new book, are – like all other memoirs –distilled through a filter, her brother points out. She isn’t necessarily wrong or malicious in what she remembers. But neither is what she writes the “truth,” whatever that means. Memories are as flawed as the humans who carry them around.
That ambiguity drives the script to interesting places. With this often crisp drama, StageWorks Fresno once again offers audiences something substantial on which to sink their teeth into.
Pictured: Greg Ruud, left, and Amalie Larsen in ‘Other Desert Cities.’ (Fresno Bee photo by Silvia Flores)
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