Review: “Other Desert Cities” at City Lights Theatre Company

Imagine in your head the most stereotypical 21st century American play possible. That play that you just imagined Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, a perfectly tasteful and well-assembled yet mostly unexciting family drama that was by some miracle nominated for the 2011 Pulitzer prize for drama. There’s certainly a time and a place for this kind of play, though, and if you’re in the mood for something talky and political, City Lights has mounted a knockout production of the work.

The play concerns an upper-class Jewish family, the patriarch of which is an ex-ambassador and an active Reaganite conservative, the matriarch a screenplay writer and political wife and the two children young artistic types, the daughter a novelist and the son a producer of cheap reality television. Oh, and there’s a recovering alcoholic aunt in the mix as well, mostly there to make quips. The action takes place on Christmas Eve, when Brooke, the daughter, comes home with the manuscript for her brand new book, a tell-all memoir on her family. See what I mean? And though the frequent theatergoer may be fed up with more stories about the problems of upper-class white families, Other Desert Cities is slick and enjoyable enough to be a worthwhile evening of theatre. Sure, the humorous first act is full of predictable zingers and the political debates are not particularly interesting when the author clearly favors one argument over the other, but the second act manages to portray family dynamics in an intelligent and honest way. It’s an entertaining night of theatre, even if it never once challenges the audience in any way.

There probably won’t be a better production of this play in the near future than the one currently running at City Lights. John McCluggage has directed his cast of five with a beautifully light hand, never pushing the text past the point of believability. It was a great relief to hear the second act performed not with loud and fiery anger, but with delicate honesty. Lauren Tothero proves to be the standout member of the cast as Brooke. Despite being about ten years too young for the role, she always plays her role for truth and will strike a note of familiarity among any audience members who have a sibling around her age. The rest of the cast is similarly strong, functioning beautifully as a single unit, though Jeff Kramer as Lyman, the family’s patriarch, occasionally forces the drama out of his character at the expense of naturalism. Also of note is Ron Gasparinetti’s picture perfect set, which perfectly recalls the vintage stylings of typical desert homes.

Tasteful, slick, and very much entertaining, City Lights Theatre Company’s Other Desert Cities is an enjoyable night out, even if it isn’t much deeper than your average puddle. See it, have a good time, and then forget about it in a month or two.

Other Desert Cities runs through October 23 in San Jose. Tickets and information available here.

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