Turn on cable TV anytime before bedtime on a day that ends in “day” and you’re bound to encounter some incarnation of the 21st Century family. Whether it’s the whirlwind drug trafficking of the Whites, the bow-tied zaniness of the Pritchetts or the fresh idiosyncrasy of the Huangs — it’s unmistakable that days of vanilla-on-eggshell casts and story lines are just a tad more than passé.
Gone are the monochromatic airwaves of the Cleavers, the Ozzies and the Harriets. Even the bob-haired Rachel Greens of the world have systematically disappeared from the American zeitgeist.
Those Eisenhower, Reagan, even Slick Willy-era ideals of family have fallen slightly out of favor with audiences because, well, as hard as it may be for some country-club patrons to admit, life isn’t exactly all laugh tracks and punchlines.
Just ask the Wyeths onstage at the Vintage Theatre. They wouldn’t be forthright, at least not without five glasses of anti-sobering primer. The Wyeths, the family at the center of “Other Desert Cities,” is a glimmering example of the fact that, despite any outward gloss, every clan in America has cracks. And skeletons. And neurotic, manic, despicable means of coping.
Now onstage at The Vintage, “Cities” and its featured family, is a poignant, unwavering look at what protagonist Brooke (Molly Killoran) calls, “the indentured servitude of having a family.” Who hasn’t related to that morbid sentiment after at least a handful of complicated family meals fueled by cabernet and shattered pretense?
Complicated. That broad stroking catchall is the nucleus of this Bernie Cardell-directed verbal tour de force. It’s complicated.
Every facet of “Cities” walks that tight rope. It’s too blunt: That’s how families talk when facing crises. It’s too circuitous: Most American families are more fluent in wit and sarcasm than English — especially when stressed. The pacing of the show is as complicated as the emotions of the characters.
“Cities” centers on the return of less-than-sane writer, Brooke, to her family in dusty Palm Springs, California. The show is a two-and-a-half-hour shouting match that pits family member against family member — each with their own personal qualms about everything — everything. The complexity is found in every Wyeth’s tether to a secret surrounding the murky death of Henry, the troublesome son/brother who reportedly killed himself as part of a cult-ish streak of rebellion.
Behind an acerbic script penned by Jon Robin Baitz, “Cities” Vintage cast manages to appeal to just about every feeling, emotion and morbid family-related day dream within the familial ambit. Through a shotgun approach that produces thematic buckshot ranging from substance abuse, depression, crime and politics — all nuzzled in the un-deodorized armpit of fractured inter-family politics — the show is able to withstand the comparisons the audience makes with their own families throughout the lethargic performance.
Where the play bogs down, the actors stand up to what is truly an actors play. With a modest set and minimal lighting and stage cues, delivery of the uber-quotable dialogue is tantamount to keeping the audience enthused. Thankfully, the Wyeth’s, for the most part, send in their lines with gusto.
Very much playing the armchair quarterback, Luke Sorge gives a chippy, stoner-ific Trip, who appropriately foils the neuroses of his more oblivious family members. His one-on-ones with the other Wyeths, especially sister Brooke and mother, Polly, draw the audience back from an emotional haze after the grueling quarrels. The only other male cast member is Paul Page as Lyman Wyeth. The family patriarch is a self-righteous former U.S. ambassador and very Reagan-eqsue actor. He serves his WASPy role adequately, giving a powerful final oration at the height of the drawn-out first scene of the second act.
But, as is the case in many families, the Wyeths — and the show as a whole — are commanded by the women. Libby Rife offers a tempestuous, hilariously unstable Silda, providing viewers with some much needed comic relief following Killoran’s uptight tirades. One of Rife’s first, brassy lines, “Oh f***, I forgot it’s Christmas,” gets the deserved hardest laughs of the show. And her tearful, Judas-like apology nearing the story’s climax proves she’s more than just a rehashed clown.
Evaluating the play’s central character, played by Killoran, presents a challenge in that she red-lines the whole anxious, uptight shtick from first breath to final bow. As much as her tight-lipped, about-to-shatter-at-any-moment delivery grates, that’s the point. In being that needy, venomous familial wedge, she clearly succeeds.
Despite proud performances by the Wyeth troupe as a collective, the show is steered, roped and bullied by Jan Cleveland as Polly. The family’s relentless, no-holds-barred matriarch, Cleveland portrays an Oz-like persona who chooses to do her manipulating from a distance. Cleveland pummels and jabs her lines with viperous precision, dishing many of the show’s most creative slights and memorable barbs.
“You continue to dress like a refugee from a library in Kabul,” she murmurs to her fragile, self-concerned daughter.
“Living on the East Coast has given you the impression that sarcasm is alluring and charming.”
“It’s all or nothing with your generation. Either vegans or meth addicts, or both at the same time.”
With commanding bravado Cleveland ferociously slashes through her dense dialogue with expert, twisted puppeteering.
Riddled with characters we all know and just may be related to, the Vintage’s performance of “Cities” is unflinching and unnerving. Above all, it’s complicated.
‘Other Desert Cities’
Curtains at 7:30 p.m. on Fri., Sat. and Mon. Show starts at 2:30 p.m. on Sun.
Runs through March 1 at The Vintage Theatre, 1468 Dayton St.
Tickets start at $24.
Call the Vintage box office, 303-856-7830 for details.