As you take your seat for Other Desert Cities at Syracuse Stage, the set is on magnificent display: a ridiculously palatial, quintessentially American home. The desert skyline is visible through floor-to-ceiling windows. The promise of such a set makes everything that follows so much more confounding it’s hard to reconcile. I’d have rather continued gazing at that house, listening to the late-60’s protest rock that played loudly as the half-full audience kept meandering in 7 minutes past showtime.
Unfamiliar with the show, I did a quick critical survey beforehand. Jon Robin Baitz’s Pulitzer-nominated play was first presented in 2011 with Linda Lavin, Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach in the cast. It received mostly positive reviews, although subsequent productions featured different actors and weren’t as lauded. After the house lights finally dimmed in Syracuse and our retinas recovered from the too-quick, too-bright fade up, I had to keep reminding myself that intelligent theater watchers had previously declared Baitz’s writing cogent and funny. I also tried to set aside the fact that I’ve disliked every non-August Wilson piece Producing Artistic Director Timothy Bond has directed over the past few years (he even tried to spoil some of the Wilson plays.) By the end of the first act, I was ready to call this one of Bond’s worst dogs ever, rivaling last year’s The Whipping Man.
During intermission, I considered what I’d seen. Maybe the acting was terrible on purpose? Maybe it was a sitcom parody of the “American Republican family?” (Actress Dori Legg already appeared this season in the sitcom-ish Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike – her grating line deliveries were practically unchanged here.) While I pondered, actors began wandering around the stage. The house lights were still up, the audience on break, checking phones, going to the bathroom. My companion didn’t like the gimmick. But why not? A charitable critic might say, “It shows the characters’ lives continue even when we’re not watching.” But many had apparently decided to stop watching entirely (two next to me and two behind didn’t return), so the point was moot. (Do characters keep their heads up their asses if there’s no audience to yawn? Apparently they do.)
I’d wondered why we were hearing so much classic rock, as the play’s action is set in 2004. It turns out the absent older brother had been a political radical in the late 1970’s. (And apparently preferred late-60’s music.) It turns out Baitz wants to connect Vietnam War protests with objection to American military action in Iraq and Afghanistan; nevermind how dissimilar those concepts are (although the dissimilarity might have been interesting to explore.) Baitz is also interested in family secrets and the limits of love (the play was originally titled Love and Mercy.) I assume a better cast (or better direction) might better engage the audience. As presented, nothing is at stake – we don’t care if the characters walk out of each others’ lives for good (the play is set on Christmas Eve, presumably to contrast what we’re seeing with the expected “love and happiness.”) We have to be told that Mom and Dad love their kids more than anything, because we don’t see it (the climactic reveal fails completely for that reason.) We have to be told that Dad is a famous actor, because he doesn’t carry himself that way. We have to be told that Daughter is a great writer, because none of the recited excerpts from her book convey as much. At the very end, somebody near me said, “Well, I didn’t see that coming.” Which might be a compliment after an Agatha Christie play, but a character-driven drama needs to lay enough groundwork so we respond, “Of course.”
After the play’s have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too postscript, after the perfunctory bows, the house lights came up and I remained in my seat, still loving the set and the music. After about 30 seconds, the sound was abruptly cut. The running crew had apparently had enough, and I don’t blame them. Syracuse Stage’s 2014/15 season is over. I glanced at next year’s lineup in my program, noticed there are no August Wilson plays on deck, and Timothy Bond has not announced his resignation. Maybe it’s time to subscribe at The Red House Arts Center? (But I’d miss the sets.)