Jon Robin Baitz is probably one of our most gifted playwrights. In his wonderful plays “The Substance of Fire” and “Three Hotels,” he seems to thrive on dramas about families experiencing their defining moments. Unfortunately, his current play, “Other Desert Cities,” at Goodman Theatre, doesn’t quite fulfill the promise of his earlier work.
The premise of the play is compelling: a southern California family made up of a father who is a former film star turned conservative politician (think former President Reagan), a mother who, along with her sister, were the screenwriters of a series of teen-themed films, a son who produces a reality show, and a daughter still recovering from her nervous breakdown brought on by the suicide of her older brother.
All of this is great fodder for an immensely gripping story that should keep you on the edge of your seat, but for some reason, it just doesn’t quite gel. The play is solid, the cast is exemplary, the direction is clear, but in the second act, when it should all come together, it just falls flat. Hopefully it will all come together later in the run.
The actors are mostly strong throughout. Tracy Michelle Arnold as Brooke Wyeth, still living on a razor’s edge following her nervous breakdown after the suicide of her older brother Henry (who is, without a doubt, the sixth character in the play), beautifully walks the line between madness and righteous indignation. Deanna Dunagan’s Polly is the epitome of conservative anger and intolerance, and Linda Kimbrough, playing the play’s funniest character, Silda, effortlessly portrays a recovering alcoholic wishing she could relapse into her former world of booze and pills.
All the elements in this production should work, but for some reason, there is a gulf between what should be and what is.