Review: Florida Rep opens wonderful, intelligent 'Other Desert Cities'

The cast of 'Other Desert Cities,' playing through April 6 at Florida Repertory Theatre.

David Dack Maki / SnapFlashPhoto

The cast of "Other Desert Cities," playing through April 6 at Florida Repertory Theatre.

What: Liberal daughter confronts conservative parents about the suicide of her older brother

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday & Sundays through April 6

Where: 2267 1st Street, Fort Myers

Cost: $40 & $45

Information: (239) 332-4488, floridarep.org

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Florida Repertory Theatre

2267 1st Street, Fort Myers, FL

— Florida Repertory Theatre scored a coup, grabbing the rights to red-hot Jon Robin Baitz play "Other Desert Cities" for their 2012-13 season. In some ways a thinly veiled take on Ron and Nancy Reagan, the show features a daughter confronting conservative parents over long-buried family secrets.

I attended a preview of "Other Desert Cities" Thursday night; Friday's opening night was already committed to "The Whipping Man" at Gulfshore Playhouse. I knew a few minutes into the first scene that I'd unfortunately caught the cast on an extremely flat night. Constant and repeated line flubs, non-existent chemistry and leaden pacing left the evening a torture. The only person who had a good night was Eric Mendenhall.

Previews, while open to the public, are a courtesy for critics. Even twenty-four hours before opening, I expected a few rough edges; I didn't expect something quite so unfinished. Unable to be fair to the actors, the theatre and the show, I returned for Saturday's matinee. This review reflects my experience at the second show.

Powerful, thoughtful and intelligent, "Other Desert Cities" rewards audiences who can be still, be quiet, and pay attention. In retrospect, a Saturday afternoon in the heart of season might not have been the best choice to absorb the layers director Robert Cacioppo starts to build into his show. A brilliant, engaging and engrossing experience is starting to emerge. Even in its infancy, the actors are finding depths to the characters and scenes ring with authenticity.

Cacioppo draws from his strong ensemble to fill four roles in the Wyeth clan. Rachell Burttram plays Sag Harbor exile Brooke, home to the desert in Palm Springs for the first time in six years after a breakdown and begging for blessings on her new book. Carrie Lund takes on icy matriarch Polly. Sara Morsey returns as pill-popping sister Silda, while Bill McNulty plays Reagan stand-in Lyman Wyeth.

Eric Mendenhall, while not a member of the Florida Rep ensemble, was among the many good actors trapped in the comedic fizzle of "Bedroom Farce" back in February 2012. Here, he proves a revelation, creating a fizzy, sparkling riddle of a character that defies logic.

Mendenhall delivers a sharp, almost carelessly brittle performance as the seemingly happy-go-lucky, forgotten youngest brother. Trip carries the show's "reality over lies" message; each of the other characters hides behind some fiction, while Trip is honest about his debauchery.

He brings a subtlety to the performance that's sometimes lacking on stage. Be it an easy physicality that allows him to create chemistry without the movement seeming choreographed or a commanding voice that goes from bellow to bemused.

Mendenhall finds exactly the wry line between bitter and bruising. Trip delivers exactly the emotional punches he should as the actor berates his on-stage family over their inability to stop squabbling even on Christmas Eve. Think of him as the the warbling "can't we all just get along" bluebird piping in the corner while the other characters screech like magpies. Yet, you're never quite sure whether Trip has it all figured out, or if he's even more of a mess than everyone else on stage.

Rachel Burttram seems to be finding her range as Brooke. She marches Brooke forward with righteous anger and so much determination. Sizzling confrontations, especially with McNulty's Lyman as the character begs her to delay the book bring staggering emotions to the surface.

Burttram brings a manic, hand-waving, franticness to her Brooke; you can visualize exactly the play's line about "dancing as fast as she can" description. There are times the performance tilts slightly toward shrill.

Sara Morsey brings her usual subtle, pill-popping, crazy-person touch to accidental harridan Silda; that low-voiced, carping, complaining growl should be declared a national treasure. Watch Silda quietly dancing around in the background; Morsey does so much more than steal joints back there. McNulty feels as if was asked to underplay Lyman, or else shades of a diminished, immediate pre-Alzheimer's character. His talks with Burttram's Brooke, then the explosive finale reveal the ability to command the stage he displayed in "Red."

Carrie Lund might be the best and the worst thing about "Other Desert Cities." Polly Wyeth, the character a subtle stand-in for Nancy Reagan, breathes "compassionate conservatism," and Lund allows audiences to see the impossible contradictions of that phrase. You see the hard edges that come from a lifetime of knife-edged honor, fierce commitment and iron-willed ideas. You see the heart-breaking crash when reality intersects with politics. You see parents sacrificing for children.

Much of "Other Desert Cities" revolves around Polly Wyeth, "the only woman ever to face down Nancy Reagan." When Lund is at the top of her game, as she often was Saturday afternoon, the show is very good. Even the smallest touches, trademarks of the Cacioppo school of directing, like sneaking a cigarette timed to the word "sneak" in the script, or subtle glances and smart choices add layers to her old guard Republican ice queen.

Unfortunately, Lund's monumental workload (this is her third role in 12 weeks) catches up with her. Repeated and noticeable flubs pepper her performance, slowing the show's momentum, disrupting the rhythm and forcing other actor's to adjust again and again. There are moments of startling clarity, when the show blooms and the characters feel alive; at other times, as Lund fights valiantly for lines, the show feels like a watch in desperate need of tuning. Even with the problems, there are obvious hints that the ensemble needs just a few more days to fall into place..

A stirring denouement, begun by Lund as her Polly nods and whispers the words "Sit down. Please" serves up some of the best, most subtle and dramatic acting Florida Rep has produced this year. Never has "sit down" heralded the weight of so much to come. McNulty and Lund take turns relating the terrible truths, laying down the heavy lies they have carried, exposing family secrets.

Cacioppo stages the scene with careful restrain, pushing actors to use just their voice and face to convey emotion; Lund wavers and breaks as she relates the wistful tale, painting a picture of woe. The actors hold the mood with skill, creating a bubble of expectation until Burttram explodes, releasing the tension by throwing the pages of her book into the air in a blizzard of paper, symbolically raining shame down on the family. A momentary blackout before the final brief scene saw crass audience members crawl over half a row in a shameful stampede for the exits.

Richard Crowell designs an airy stone, wood and glass desert castle that looks like it floats on the stage. Royal palms in a not-so-subtle "V" shape (for victory!), built by Florida Rep's production team, tower through glass doors at rear. An enormous fireplace hangs, cliff-like, over a good chunk of the stage (it suggests plunging off the deep end). Spare, luxe, mid-century modern furniture from Clive|Daniel Home rests comfortably on a pale floor. The very rich display very little in the way of decoration; there's little extraneous on the stage.

A few of the costume choices baffle. Old guard GOP ladies would never wear pastels; primary colors only, with two strands of pearls maximum. No matter that Lund, coming off a pair of frumpy roles in "The Little Foxes" and "South Division," looks amazing on stage, the pale blue number and its too-many-pearls strikes a distracting false note. Ditto for Burttram's long-sleeves and culottes outfit trying to pass as a "tennis outfit" at the top of the show.

Mendenhall gets suitably relaxed plain proto-hipster garb; audiences will love those horribly tacky, kind-of-tight blue plaid shorts. Morsey clearly delights in Silda's Loehmann's bargain basement "Pucci," while McNulty looks suitably presidential in bold suits. I also love the tennis skirt Lund wears in act one, and the girlish twirl as she settles onto the couch. Delight also in the piano music before the show. Sound designer Kate Smith plucked it - I think - from George Winston's "Autumn" album; the piece is "Longing/Love," perfect for the show.

This is the kind of smart theatre that will leave audiences talking and thinking for days. Consider the questions of what parents might owe children, or what loyalty children owe their parents in return. Head out, toward "Other Desert Cities." Find something wonderful.

"This Pucci was made in a basement in Rangoon." Email me, csilk@naplesnews.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.

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