Plenty of laughs help the bitterness go down a little easier

On the desert road to Palm Springs, California, there’s a sign that shows the turnoff to the city, along with an arrow for “Other desert cities.” If one’s maddening family happens to be in Palm Springs, it can be mighty tempting to go for that second option.

So explains the character Brooke in Jon Robin Baitz’s Pulitzer-nominated 2011 play “Other Desert Cities,” recently opened at the Mizel Center by Cherry Creek Theatre. That stark but not-so-simple choice has other meanings to it, not the least of which is the desert of love being felt in the home of Brooke’s parents, Polly and Lyman.

Later on, we’ll find out what another desert city might be — even if it’s not in the desert. But first, we need to hear about all the shitty things the members of this family have done to each other over the years. Layer upon layer is peeled back, and no one is blameless. There are many little secrets, a few medium-sized ones and one whopper that we don’t even know exists until near the end of the play (and I won’t reveal it here).

This is an excellent production, but for opening weekend the cast was still looking to get all the lines straight and gel as a group. It’s not until Act Two that they hit their stride as the fur really begins to fly.[rev_slider alias=”desert”]

The family that yells together

In Act One, “Other Desert Cities” looks a bit familiar: a play about family members who may love one another but who, over a long history, sorta hate each other too. Baitz’s script delves into this reality right off the bat, peppering the dialogue with funny zingers to keep things from going downhill too fast.

We’re in Palm Springs for Christmas, and Brooke (Lilia Vassileva), one of two family basket cases, is a writer with a bombshell of a manuscript she’d like to chat about. Her virago of a mom, Polly (Abby Apple Boes) is about as prickly as the cactus that surrounds the house, while dad Lyman (Michael McNeil) alternates between backing his wife, siding with his daughter and not knowing what to think. The two of them are former Hollywood types and hard-core Republicans who openly disparage their lefty kids.

Brooke’s brother, Trip (Chas Lederer) is the voice of reason — or at least he’d like to be. A TV producer working on a “People’s Court” kind of show, Trip has lived in the shadow of Brooke’s mental illness for a number of years. All of them have lived with the memory of their older brother Henry, who got involved with some radicals back in the ’70s and committed suicide following the bombing of a military recruiting office.

And for comic relief and added culpability, we have Silda (Pamela Clifton), Polly’s batty sister who’s had her own runarounds with mental illness and alcoholism and who’s living with Polly and Lyman until she “gets back on her feet.”

That damn book

The action in the play ultimately centers around Brooke’s book, a memoire about her lost brother full of unpleasant facts and opinions about her parents and how they handled his downfall. Vassileva plays Brooke as a fragile, half-broken young woman who nevertheless keeps insisting she’s fine. It’s a haunting performance that gains energy as the tension rises, and in the intimate space of the Mizel’s Pluss Theatre, we see it all on her face.

Brooke is smart enough to write books that sell but somehow delusional enough to think her family will be OK with this tell-all memoire (this is one part of the script I didn’t quite buy). Everyone but Silda (who, we learn, had a hand in its creation) takes time to read it, and Polly comes out of the bedroom in high dudgeon, letting Brooke know that, if she goes ahead with publishing it, she’s out of the family.

As Polly, Boes doesn’t have a lot of room to run since the character is either actively pissed off or simmering with snark or rage she’s just about to express. Even so, she does nice job with this viper of a character, and I particularly enjoyed watching her when she’s silent and glowering at the goings-on.

Lederer has a bit more latitude with Trip, a character who knows the least about the Henry story and who has to react in real-time to all the crap being argued over. And while his attempts at peacemaking never change a thing, he provides a little bit of center for Brooke to cling to as things head south.

Lyman refuses to read the book, but when Polly starts reading passages aloud, he tears into Brooke as well. McNeil plays Lyman as more sympathetic than Polly, and he has more emotional range in the script to work with. In some ways, I found him the most believable character from start to finish — a father trying to do the right thing by his family but torn in all kinds of impossible directions.

Getting the most laughs is Clifton as Silda. But her one-liners start to fade as we learn about her role in crafting the book with Brooke.

In the end, Brooke determines to publish the book regardless of how her parents feel about it. She prepares to go pack and leave when Lyman and then Polly decide to divulge an important fact about the Henry incident she didn’t know.

And that changes everything.

Strong stuff

“Other Desert Cities” is a tough show to watch, especially for anyone with family members on opposite sides of the political fence. This one takes place during the Bush years, and Polly and Lyman are quite free with their digs at the “whiny liberals” in their midst. Brooke and Silda dish it right back. (Chas, true to form, tries to steer clear).

But politics isn’t what separates this family, and the script cleverly moves the plot away from what are essentially surface arguments to things that are much more substantial. In the hands of director Sheila Ivy Traister and this strong cast, “Other Desert Cities” is a powerful piece of theater that once again shows what a gem Cherry Creek Theatre has become.