‘Other Desert Cities’ shines wisecracking light on assimilation

‘Other Desert Cities’ shines wisecracking light on assimilation

Helena Ruoti (l) as Polly, and Susan Cella as Silda, wrap Christmas gifts in “Other Desert Cities.”
Helena Ruoti (l) as Polly, and Susan Cella as Silda, wrap Christmas gifts in “Other Desert Cities.”

Polly Wyeth, the WASP-ish matriarch in “Other Desert Cities,” opening at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, Thursday, May 30, does not approve of her sister Silda’s fake Pucci blouse — a real bargain from Loehmann’s.

“It’s the trying to pass that gets me,” Polly says.

“News flash,” Silda says to Polly. “You’re a Jew. Talk about faking it.”

It is Christmas Eve in Palm Springs, 2004. Polly and Lyman Wyeth (Helena Ruoti and James DeMarse), old guard California Republicans, friends with Nancy and Ronnie, will be going to the country club to celebrate the holiday with their two visiting children — writer Brooke, and reality show producer Trip — and the wisecracking Silda, who is fresh out of rehab.

While “Other Desert Cities” does not confront the issue of Jewish assimilation head-on, it does take a healthy sideswipe at the topic in this funny, compelling family drama of pretensions, secrets and outright lies, written by Jon Robin Baitz, the creator of ABC’s “Brothers and Sisters.”

The tension between Polly and Silda may be emblematic of the American Jewish struggle between preservation of ethnic identity versus the desire to be fully absorbed into American culture.

“The character of Silda viscerally owns her ethnic roots, and her Judaism,” Rob Ruggiero, the play’s director, told the Chronicle. “It really upsets her that her sister tries to assimilate so much into the WASP world, politics aside. That whole aspect of embracing who you are, and trying to become someone else, hits a chord with a lot of people.”

“Other Desert Cities” won the Outer Critics Circle Award in 2011, and had a well-reviewed run on Broadway last year, nominated for the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play. It concludes the PPT’s “Made in America” season.

Baitz’s dialogue rings true in a play that takes a hard look at dishonesty and misconceptions.

“In the writing, Silda sounds like she’s Jewish, and Polly sounds like she’s a WASP,” said Susan Cella, who plays Silda. “That’s not an easy thing to do. The play is about language, among other themes. The play is also about how we all function in truth and lies within our families and ourselves. Family is really about secrets and peoples’ reasons for keeping the secrets, and the damage they can do nonetheless.”

“Other Desert Cities” will be Cella’s debut at the PPT, but she is no stranger to Pittsburgh. She has performed in several shows at the CLO, including “42nd Street,” “The Most Happy Fella,” and “Gypsy.”

Though not Jewish, Cella is often cast in Jewish roles.

“I am the Jewess of the shiksa world,” she quipped. “I’ve played Golda [in “Fiddler on the Roof”] about 1,000 times. I’ve been opposite Topol, Theodore Bikel, even Harvey Fierstein.”

Cella’s Silda — upfront and unguarded — stands in contrast to Polly, buttoned-up and concerned with appearances.

“Silda is one of those characters that’s unedited,” Ruggiero said. “Those are my favorite kind of people. You always know where you stand. Silda is like the Auntie Mame of the Jewish world.”

While the tension between the sisters adds a salient dimension to the play, “Other Desert Cities” gets its real momentum from the conflict that ensues when Polly and Lyman’s daughter, Brooke, announces that she plans to publish a memoir exposing long-held family secrets.

“I think it is interesting to look at that aspect (Polly’s assimilation) of “Other Desert Cities, but by no means is it a play that confronts that issue,” Ruggiero said. “But it does play a role in how this family plays out this conflict. The impromptu family reunion tests the bonds on this family in real provocative ways.”

“Other Desert Cities” marks Ruggiero’s sixth turn directing a PPT production. His credits with the theater include “The Subject Was Roses,” “Rabbit Hole,” and “Ella.” On Broadway, Ruggiero has directed “HIGH,” starring Kathleen Turner, and “Looped,” starring Valerie Harper in a Tony-nominated performance.

While “Other Desert Cities” is not a “Jewish play” per se, its Jewish characters, and its characters’ sense of maintaining links to the past, connect it to a Jewish sensibility. Despite all Polly’s efforts to be someone else, she does not completely turn her back on her roots.

Upon hearing that the spurious judge who presides over the court in son Trip’s reality show is named Myron C. Glimmelman, Polly laments: “Oh, my people, my people, my people.”

Want to go?

What: “Other Desert Cities”

When: May 30 through June 30

Where: The O’Reilly Theater.

Contact: 412-316-1600 or ppt.org for tickets.

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.)

read more: