John Robin Baitz’ OTHER DESERT CITIES (playing at SpeakEasy Stage thru Feb. 9th) starts off as a clever little comedy about what writers owe their families, if they use them as subject matter. Baitz gets plenty of laughs from the friction created when parents and children hold to opposing political opinions. (Is there any other kind of family?) Mother (Karen MacDonald) and father (Munson Hicks) are old Hollywood conservatives, throwbacks to the Reagan era. Brother (Christopher M. Smith) and Sister (Anne Gottlieb) have a tough time of it visiting over the holidays. Oh, and there’s a sassy auntie (Nancy E. Carroll) just to give mother a fit.
Then Baitz changes horses in midstream and abandons the ethical dilemma altogether by introducing a mystery of sorts in Act II. (I don’t want to give anything away so I won’t say anymore except that I think Baitz’ math is off… or are the actors too young?) It doesn’t really matter because the pleasure of CITIES is in the production.
Director Scott Edmiston has a first rate cast, with Gottlieb miraculously avoiding being shrill as the grown daughter still plagued by childhood issues. Gottlieb has our sympathies, even as she charges blindly ahead, seemingly without regard for her parents’ or her brother’s wishes. Smith gives an extraordinary performance as her longsuffering sibling, culminating in a cathartic “Let me tell you about my problems!” speech.
MacDonald is in her element as the rather severe mother who upbraids her daughter with the nasty “Sarcasm is the purview of teenagers and homosexuals.” Carroll balances things out, sparring with MacDonald at every turn and siding with the children.