Review: The Rep's 'Other Desert Cities' Is as Dry as a Desert Martini

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

Isolated inside their sprawling Palm Springs home with its multilevel living room, apropos track lights and the large de rigueur stone fireplace anchoring the room, Lyman and Polly Wyeth live their lives in a meticulously constructed world of their own. When their children Brooke and Trip arrive for the Christmas holidays, they not only bring a dose of liberalism into the old guard Republican household, they bring secrets—secrets they all share but never talk about. Until now. “Other Desert Cities” at the Rep is a fascinating production of the John Robin Baitz script (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), where everything is not always as it seems.

Other Desert Cities at the Rep Celeste Ciulla as Brooke, Dee Hoty as Polly and Anderson Matthews as Lyman. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

“Other Desert Cities” at the Rep
Celeste Ciulla as Brooke, Dee Hoty as Polly and Anderson Matthews as Lyman.
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The set color reveals a great deal about the couple: beige. White carpet, blond wood, buff stone; beige. Even the Christmas tree is colorless with a few dull silver and blue ornaments. Outside there’s more of the same with the sand, rock and cactus garden viewable through the floor to ceiling windows, the only splash of color is the bright red bougainvillea creeping up the garden wall, symbolic of a more colorful world beyond the spacious isolation engineered by the Wyeths. Outside the house it’s as dry as the martinis are on the inside.

Other Desert Cities at the Rep Glynis Bell as Silda and Celeste Ciulla as Brooke. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

“Other Desert Cities” at the Rep
Glynis Bell as Silda and Celeste Ciulla as Brooke.
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

But the cultivated image is about to be obliterated. Daughter Brooke arrives with the manuscript of her new memoir in which the family’s past is dredged up as old accusations resurface. It’s a fascinating study of a human family that figuratively hides the crazy aunt in the basement. Literally, they hide her in a room down the hall in the character of the sister, Silda, played marvelously by Glynis Bell, who’s not actually crazy, just “free-spirited” compared to the Wyath’s starched conservatism.

Polly, sharply portrayed by Dee Hoty, is the controlling kind who whips opponents fiercely with her intellect, acerbic wit and tongue, while husband Lyman—with Anderson Matthews rock solid in the role—stands by straight-backed and dignified. Alex Hanna as Trip does a fine job as the sarcastic voice of reason. Celeste Ciulla, as emotional train wreck Brooke, seemed to be forcing her character early, but by the end she was effective as the daughter who had been severely traumatized by earlier events.

Other Desert Cities at the Rep Alex Hanna and Celeste Ciulla as Brooke. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

“Other Desert Cities” at the Rep
Alex Hanna and Celeste Ciulla as Brooke.
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Director Steven Wolf has assembled a first-rate cast and explores the familial relationships through his blocking and staging. The play moves along and the audience is kept totally off-guard. Michael Ganio’s set—with his spectacular jutting ceiling unit—is perfection, and Phil Monet’s lights and David Kay Mickelsen’s costumes are very good (with a special nod to Mickelsen for the ladies’ patterned muu muus). Also a nod to sound designer Rusty Wandall for his choice of the Christmas music, colored with Bing Crosby beige.

“Other Desert Cities” makes for a fine night at the theater, and worth it just to watch Hoty, Matthews and Bell perform. The play continues through March 9. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis website, or call (314) 968-4925

Follow Christopher Reilly on Twitter @ChristoReilly

The St. Louis Theatre Circle Awards—wherein local theater professionals are recognized for their contributions to St. Louis Theater over the previous year—will be televised live from COCA on Monday, March 17, by HEC TV.

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