I didn’t know much about “Other Desert Cities” headed into Arizona Theatre Company’s production of the play at the Herberger Theater Center. The descriptions online were notably vague, sharing only that it was about a family and their conflicts after the daughter reveals she is working on a memoir about her family.
I think not knowing more than that is beneficial, because discovering the specific details of the family and their twisty political influences is the best part of the play. The writing and execution falls flat, leaving audiences left with just the story.
The best part of “Other Desert Cities” was my first impression of the set, which was so quintessentially upper-middle-class-living-in-Palm-Springs that I couldn’t picture the house being anywhere else. It was open and airy, with large glass windows framed by brown and tan wood paneling that matched the furniture. There was even a small pool along the edge of the stage for characters to dip their feet into.
The characters’ entrance fit this image, too, as they bounded in after an early morning of playing tennis, dressed in expensive and stylish athletic clothes and already bickering with each other.
The problem with the set, though, is that it was severely underutilized. The structure of glass and wood gave it the illusion of depth, but even factoring that in, the characters only really engaged with the couch and chairs in the living room. The rest of the space just existed around them, rarely even playing a part in character entrances and exits.
The play is set over the course of a day, which adds to the feeling that nothing actually happens. It is almost entirely made up of dialogue, the only actions being characters walking around the living room, pouring a drink, smoking and occasionally walking “outside.”
And when the characters argue with each other, they rehash the same arguments again and again, which is tiring to be a part of in real life but even more tiring to observe other people doing.
The play attempts to lighten this with a combination of dark humor and oddly offensive comments from Brooke’s parents. The dark humor is mostly successful, especially when coming from Brooke’s brother, Trip, played by Will Mobley, and her aunt, Silda, played by Robin Moseley.
The other jokes, though — not so much. The audience of older adults laughed at many of these attempts at humor, but they came off as very uncomfortable to me. Most of the jokes were critical of conservative, Republican views, but in a way that seemed to let those same people in on the joke. It was like pointing out a problem but then excusing it in the same breath.
I’ve seen a lot of plays featuring quietly suffering, weak-willed, hard-to-love leading ladies. This archetype is abundant across the stage and even in many less-than-mainstream films, despite how difficult it is to pull it off.
Unsympathetic characters are typically either extremely likable due to some redeeming quality or just thoroughly annoying and frustrating. But Brooke, the main character of “Other Desert Cities,” somehow manages to fall between the two, bouncing between the two extremes like a ping-pong ball being hit back and forth by the other characters.
Brooke is played by Paige Lindsey White, who does a fair job of capturing the character as I assume she was written. Some of the acting is overwrought — from all of the characters — and some of it is just a bit off, such as when Brooke is discussing her experiences with depression with her family. At least some of this is due to Brooke’s characterization.
She’s at her most sympathetic when pleading with her family to tell her the truth about her brother’s death and arguing her right to publish what she’s discovered. The secondary family conflicts feel overly dramatic, though; there’s a lot of yelling and arguing and a distinct sense that no progress is being made.
Overall, “Other Desert Cities” was a fun experience for the small moments that were successful, but the major issues of character portrayal, pace and off-putting humor made the rest of the play less than enjoyable.