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They Screw You Up

Chris Kelly in "Cloud 9."

A conservative Republican couple living in an affluent California desert community have entirely liberal relations. The group is both claustrophobically close and painfully estranged. When the daughter returns home after six years and announces that she has written a book that will expose hurtful family secrets, old wounds are reopened and relationships are realigned. That is the plot of Jon Rob Baitz’s play, Other Desert Cities, which opens at the Kavinoky Theatre this week.

Meanwhile, over at the New Phoenix Theatre on the Park, audiences will be invited to ask the question, “Where’s Clive?” starting next week. The harsh, self-absorbed patriarch of the Victorian family is both absent and entirely present in Act II of Caryl Churchill’s landmark 1978 play, Cloud 9. Told in non-realistic style, the first act of the play is set in a generic British Colonial landscape, somewhere in Africa, sometime in the 19th century.

The second half of Cloud 9 is set 100 years later, but only 25 years have passed for the family. Clive is now obsolete and gone. Churchill playfully explores ways in which Victorian repression continues to influence today’s gender roles and sexual attitudes. Sure, women may be equal today, and we may be more accepting of homosexuality, but the repressive past has ways of resurfacing and informing the way we view ourselves and each other.

The abundance of quality scripts finding their way to Buffalo’s stages continues, and so does our theatrical obsession with the way that seemingly wholesome family values can screw us up. I saw the original off-Broadway productions of both plays: Other Desert Cities at Lincoln Center, and the 1981 production of Cloud 9 that established Tommy Tune as a major director. Each looms vividly in my memory.

Something that the two plays have in common is the way that both expose the performative nature of family relationships.

In Other Desert Cities, an entire family history turns out to be built upon a lie. Polly and Lyman Wyeth have concocted a fiction about the suicide of their son, Henry, who, in opposition to their conservative values, was active in subversive politics. Polly’s sister, Silda, is recently out of rehab and visiting for the holidays—she’s an instigator. Seeming polar opposites, Polly and Silda wrote a successful series of MGM films in the 1960s. They are skilled at spinning fictions.

In Cloud 9, Caryl Churchill puts the ways in which gender is a performance right at the surface. Clive’s repressed wife Betty is played by a man in Act I, but by a woman in Act II. In fact, all of the characters are played by different actors in act two. The play examines our understanding of gender, our quest for identity; the ways that the past lingers in the present; sexual repression and the use of violence to reinforce obsolete norms. All of this is represented literally.

Tommy Tune’s staging of Cloud 9 was marvelously physical, as if plucked from the improvisation of commedia dell’arte, riffing on iconic stereotypes of family life and modern living.

Other Desert Cities underwent considerable development after Lincoln Center, where Linda Lavin played Silda. Lavin left the production before Broadway in order to originate the leading role in Nicky Silver’s The Lyons. I am eager to see the changes. Judith Light played Silda on Broadway and was rewarded for her effort with a Tony Award. Lisa Ludwig plays the role at the Kavinoky. Directed by Peter Palmisano, the Kavinoky production features David Lamb and Barbara Link LaRou as Lyman and Polly, Kristen Tripp Kelley as their daughter, and Matt Witten plays their son.

Other Desert Cities opens November 23 and will play through Dec 16 at the Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Avenue. Call 716-829-7668.

Directed by Kelli Bocok-Natale (like Tommy Tune, known for flights of stage invention with her staging of such New Phoenix shows as Macbeth and Peter Pan), Cloud 9 stars Richard Lambert, Chris Kelly, Diane Curley, Kelly Ferguson Moore, Pamela Rose Mangus, Eric Rawski, and Steve Copps. The production opens November 29 and plays through December 22 at the New Phoenix Theatre on the Park, 95 Johnson Park. Call 716-853-1334.

David Lamb, Kristen Tripp Kelley, and Barbara Link Larue in "Other Desert Cities."