Other Desert CitiesEditor’s Note:  Sometimes the truth is strange, stranger than fiction. Sometimes it is fiction. Sometimes it is both.

We saw Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities,” a play about truth, in preview. Denver Center policy prohibits reviews of previews, so I obediently sat on my hands and requested one of our Denver writers, Mark Stevens, cover the show after its official opening on April 4. (The run is through April 28).

Mark is a talented writer in his own right, the author of “Antler Dust” and “Buried by the Roan,” both on the shelves of Telluride’s own Between the Covers Bookstore . He is also a former reporter (Denver Post, Christian Science Monitor, Rocky Mountain News) and television producer (MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour), now working in public relations. In other words, Mark has the chops to cover the show and did, in fact, write a spot on – and we think, well deserved – glowing wrap up of Kent Thompson’s no-miss production.

Mark’s review was as good as it gets as far as it went, but we can’t resist adding our two cents…

“Other Desert Cities” should come with a warning label: “Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely intentional.” Baitz holds up his mirror to society and what gets reflected back are variations on the theme of his story that emerge from the playgoers’ thought bubbles. The audience squirms and/or squeals with recognition as the barbs hit home. Think “All in the Family” on meth – or very expensive hootch. Lots of it. And the most incendiary cocktail at the Baitz’s bar is fashioned by mixing family politics with bold cap politics, with party lines reflecting heart lines.

One of the five characters in the stellar ensemble cast is Silda Grauman, the blowzy, wise-cracking, alcoholic sister of the Wyeth matriarch Polly. (Actually the sisters are two sides of the same coin, which is why Polly is so hard on her sibling. When she looks at the wreck that is Silda, it’s a “there but for the grace”… kind of repulsion.) Silda is played by another of Telluride Inside… and Out’s talented Denver writers, Tracy Shaffer, also a member of the Denver Center company. Tracy’s Silda may be burnt out, but the actress is on fire in the role.

To find out what an insider thinks about “Other Desert Cities,” click the “play” button and listen to Tracy-Silda tell it like it is.


“Other Desert Cities” is a volcanic piece of playwrighting. The production at the Denver Center for The Performing Arts, directed by Kent Thompson, will make you feel like you’re surfing fresh lava.

In the lobby at intermission, the tension was palpable. Playgoers buzzed. What the heck is going to happen? My wife, a reliable predictor of plots and their trajectory, couldn’t—or didn’t—hazard a guess.

“Other Desert Cities” is set in a sprawling Palm Springs house and the sunken-living room set, complete with towering rock chimney and long narrow sofa, comes straight up to the edge of the audience so the sensation of voyeurism is intense.

But so are these five actors. They were led by the riveting Lauren Klein, who plays the scary, ramrod-straight, morally certain Polly Wyeth.Klein gave me chills. Polly Wyeth is accustomed to certain comforts, splashes vodka into her post-tennis water to give it “flavor,” and spits mean-spirited barbs that are meant to sting.

These five actors had our audience galvanized from the get-go. Mike Hartman, as Polly’s husband Lyman Wyeth, showed a fine range. Early on, he gives us an ignorance-is-bliss “forget about it” attitude toward the brewing crisis. Later, his red-faced intensity made it feel like the end of the world was nigh. Both ends of the scale were equally gripping.

As brother and sister Trip and Brooke Wyeth, John Patrick Hayden and Kathleen McCall were ample match for Klein and Hartman.  McCall’s Brooke is all earthy, earnest East Coast New Yorker, a bit mixed-up around the edges. She’s a writer, after all, but not the fluff that her mother Polly produced for Hollywood. Hayden sells the laid-back vibe of Los Angeles, where he produces a courtroom reality show called “Jury of Your Peers.” (Great contrast between the siblings here.) And there’s Silda Grauman, played by Tracy Shaffer. She’s the perfect fifth-wheel to this four-corner stand-off. Grauman is a recovering alcoholic and also Polly’s sister. Her mere presence makes Polly cringe—and Tracy’s performance is spot on.

Some of this you’ve seen before. Family in crisis at Christmas? Check. Family members with varying versions of critical events? Check. Family members living with their own lies for decades? Been there.

But playwright Jon Robin Baitz compresses a large and tense political canvas down to this sunken living room and its five family members in a complex, multi-faceted script. There is a steady stream of funny zingers, but once the play turns dark, it turns dark for good. There are themes and topics aplenty. Generation gap. The Vietnam War. The war(s) in Iraq. Political loyalty, government myths, individual complicity, family ties, redemption, rehabilitation, and situational ethics.

The only thing I didn’t care for was the info-dump dialogue at the outset — characters filling us in on key events and details that they would normally not repeat for themselves or to each other. There’s a fair amount of back-story to get out and this catch-the-audience-up portion felt a tad forced. (Though I’m not sure how else you could get around the wrap up. The story-specific detail is needed.) Once the stakes become apparent and the exchanges turn organic, and natural, “Other Desert Cities” takes off.

The stakes in this particular case are raised by Brooke Wyeth’s new novel, which she is delivering in draft form for the family to review. Brooke lives in New York and is coming off a bad marriage and a serious bout of depression. She knows her “novel” is a bombshell and is likely to cause a massive rupture in the family dynamics, but she is also determined to publish her tell-all about the semi-famous family and, in particular, her father’s treatment of another brother, who ended up committing suicide.

From the outset, it’s clear this will be a gathering to be endured—not enjoyed.

The layers peel back, the truth will out. Stories, in turns out, are a powerful means of survival.

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