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6/7/12

Other Desert Cities – And You Thought Your Family was Cray Cray

Ahh, the notice of a show closing. It can be the biggest Debbie Downer when it happens at an unexpected time. And with all of the Tony buzz electrifying the industry in the last month or so, you would think a five-time nominee would keep it’s show running open-ended until after the Tonys to see if it takes home any awards.

Speaking of five-time nominees, Other Desert Cities, which was shacked up at the Booth Theater since the Fall, will close in under two weeks. Wah, wah…

It had a long, healthy run and was a high-quality play, for sure…but it ran its course and as the Tonys will probably indicate, it was only a ‘great play” in a season filled to the brim with them.

The premise revolves around novelist Brook Wyeth returning home for the holidays after a six-year estrangement from her family. The family begins waging war when she announces to her parents, Polly and Lyman, her aunt, Silda, and her brother, Trip, that she is publishing a memoir recalling the grief and devastation they all endured when her brother died tragically several decades earlier.

The “broken family with a hidden troubled past” shtick is a well often visited, so major kudos to Other Desert Cities that it managed to provide something a little fresh. It is a deeply layered show – you know, the type with many themes and metaphors in the dialogue – that makes me want the script transposed into a novel (EDIT: it already is) for a closer reading. It is occasionally hard to focus on everything going on as your mind hangs on every last verbal exchange…believe me, that’s a great thing.

But I digress…you are drawn into this family’s life from the get-go and want to know everything about them. The show feels like 80% familial drama and 20% “soap opera in the Hamptons.” For me, the fun part is just observing the shade-throwing back and forth and back again. We are talking, "BURN" kind of shade. Some some spot-on delivery and interplay make for a witty evening in the full-on "character assault for everyone involved" mold…know where the exits are at all times, just saying.

I would go further into the intricacies of the play, but I’ll pass…I just won’t be able to do it justice. Let’s move on to the performances; but first, let’s start with the man that provoked them all. No seriously; a much-deserved shout out goes to director Joe Mantello, coming off a Tony-nominated performance in last year’s The Normal Heart, for leading an ensemble striving to be their best. There is something about having an actor who also dabbles in the Director’s chair – think George Clooney or Ron Howard – that makes something click on stage. That is apparent here because the show’s two best performances, Judith Light as Silda and Stockard Channing as Polly, are fabulous under Mantello's direction.

I couldn’t help, but diva-worship Light – fresh off a Tony-nominated run in Lombardi – on her entrance alone. Easily one of the funniest parts of the show and after minutes of being alluded to as the type of character she is, she comes in on cue, knocks us dead and pulls focus off of everything. With the way the play is staged – conversations break off with a third or fourth person left to watch – Light was just sitting there and my eyes could not stop wondering over to her. You know the mark of a polished actress when she DOES NOT EVEN MOVE and yet, there you are…watching an actress watching the action unfold. Bowing down…

And there is everyone’s beloved Rizzo…Miss Channing. Adorned with a perfect southern accent, she nailed the richness that the role of Polly required. In fact, as much as I love her dry sense of humor, nothing is more appropo then watching her emotions overflow her game face as she is throwing down. She has this acting ability I like to call “story face”; you look at her face and you know the entire character – her backstory, her motivations, her personality. It is a gift that makes her top tier. If you have never seen Six Degrees of Separation, a film adaptation of the John Guare play of the same name that came out almost 20 years ago, it features Channing in an Oscar-nominated role. Probably my favorite performance of her entire career - especially the last five minutes of the movie, where she owns the camera– she goes into “story face” mode and a close-up of her face can made me ball my eyes out. A close-up; that’s it. BAM, Stockard’s face…cue the waterworks.

But as far as the show in general...well, the show has a lot of above-par elements – from behind-the-scenes to the performances – and it resulted in an above-par show. How many Tonys will I think it will win, or should win? Maybe one.

It pains me to say that about a show that I genuinely like. But thems the breaks; the show is too familiar (in concept) and too-“quintessential Broadway.” When you think of Broadway plays, this is the style/silhouette of a show that you would think of and it pops up at dozen or so times a year. This was my favorite one of that type…but it fails to break down any barrier or reach new ground. In a year of strong plays, nothing less then astounding will suffice. Will I remember Other Desert Cities? Definitely. But I tend to think it is a show that was better then the sum of its parts. I can’t label any one part of the show as ‘weak’ (well, maybe the ending a little bit)…but I can’t say either, “that aspect was the best of all year.” In every category it is nominated for, it will probably be a second or third place finish.

If I had to guess where it may pull off a victory, it would be Light’s performance. I was chatting it up with Lucky of The Craptacular (a wonderful read and should be on every theater lover’s blogroll) a while back and she, very correctly might I add, observed that Light stole the show. Yes, even from right under Channing’s nose. That is no small feat and while Linda Emond’s performance is good in Death of a Salesman and Celia Keenan-Bolger is absolutely fantastic in Peter and the Starcatcher, Light is still very much in the running. She would be my top choice, by a hair, to win the Tony over Keenan-Bolger and if her winning a Drama Desk award is any indication, she may just do it (even though I adore Celia and would love to see her win too).

Either way, Other Desert Cities closes on June 17th and even with several cast rotating in and out, right now you can see the entire original off-Broadway cast, with Light filling in for Linda Lavin. It may not win any superlatives or be the best at anything, but it is consistent across the board and you will understand why its name popped up in so many places on the ballot.

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