'Other Desert Cities' is a fast ride

Published: Thursday, Oct. 31 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Kate Skinner, from left, Nancy Lemenager, Michael Zlabinger, Joyce Cohen and Dennis Parlato star in Pioneer Theatre Company's "Other Desert Cities."

Alexander Weisman, IceWolf Photography

This review could likely be rather short. It’s difficult to talk about “Other Desert Cities,” the latest offering by Pioneer Theatre Company, for fear of giving away too much.

But know that it is good, it will likely get you to think and you will see some wonderful performances.

Written by Jon Robin Baitz, “Other Desert Cities” opened on Broadway in 2011 and was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Set on Christmas Eve, the Wyeth family is all together for the holidays for the first time in six years: the parents, old-time Hollywood types turned Republican Party big-wigs; their two liberal children, and an aunt fresh out of rehab. What could happen? A lot.

The daughter, Brooke, played by Nancy Lemenager, is a writer and must confess that she has written a memoir exploring her upbringing, including a very painful chapter for the family. The parents, played by Joyce Cohen and Dennis Parlato, are none-to-thrilled with having their dirty laundry aired publicly and would like her to wait until they die to publish it.

Brooke’s brother, Trip (Michael Zlabinger), works on a frothy television series and isn’t taken too seriously, but Brooke turns to him as backup against her parents’ united front. And Aunt Silda, well … you’ve just got to meet Aunt Silda, (played with much brass by Kate Skinner).

Director Charles Morey has assembled a fine cast and each gets a turn in the spotlight as the family discourse gets heated.

There are times in Batiz’ fast-moving script that sometimes feel like a scroll through one’s Facebook newsfeed: funny line, political comment, political comment, political comment, funny line, back to politics.

For those who have grown weary with the nonstop political bickering of today, it could be a long first act. But hang tight until Act II when the focus is less on conservatives vs. liberals and more on what has made this family so tense. (That tension leads to several instances of strong language, including the F-word.)

This is a true ensemble piece in which every single cast member gets a moment in the spotlight and those moments are true highlights, especially Zlabinger at the top of Act II, and Cohen is a standout.

As is typically the case with PTC, the production values — lighting (Michael Gilliam), set (James Wolk), costumes (Susan Branch Towne) sound (Michael Wescoatt) and hair/makeup (Amanda French) — are of the highest quality.

The play explores relationships, art vs. people and lies. Or, perhaps better put, is this line from the play: “Telling the truth is a very expensive hobby.”

Content advisory: Strong language

Erica Hansen was the theater editor for the Deseret News for three years and the original host of the radio program, "Showtune Saturday Night." A graduate of the University of Utah, Hansen is also an area performer.

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