‘Desert Cities’ sheds light on families’ dysfunction

Drawing room comedies are tricky things. Stylistically, nobody did them better than Noel Coward. Then along comes a modernist one by Jon Robin Baitz, with crisp rather than droll dialogue. The main plot of “Other Desert Cities,” a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, brings to mind a couple of Pat Conroy novels.

Directed by Sean Critchfield and ending the current season at the Las Vegas Little Theatre, the production is well-paced and most production values are solid, but he stumbles in the staging.

Overdone, unmotivated blocking distracts. The best moments come when he allows his cast to remain stationary, to rely on simple body language and the words of the script.

The well-known, and well-to-do, Wyeth clan has gathered in Palm Springs for the Christmas holidays. Mother Polly and father Lyman are conservatives. Uber-liberal daughter Brooke (Mary Foresta) pokes a hot iron into the family dysfunction by announcing her latest book is actually a tell-all memoir detailing the suicide of her underground, sub-culture brother, Henry.

Foresta plays Brooke with an undercurrent of tension that serves the course of the play to perfection. Barely visible at curtain, she first begins to simmer then comes to full boil, leading us smoothly through the buildup, so that when the embers explode, we understand where they’ve come from.

Marlena Shapiro delivers a Polly complete in every mannerism, movement and expression. Her staunch, never-give-in, never-give-up attitude bathes us in a glow of distress even in the most subtle of actions; the grasping of pearls or slipping on a shoe. It’s a perfectly nuanced, reflective performance done with impeccable timing.

Beni Talley’s Lyman provides the opposite. We don’t understand his thoughts or emotions at any given moment. Everything is surface. He wanders the stage with no motivation, explodes with bluster from nowhere. When he says he “can’t live with the secret any longer,” we don’t believe him because there’s been no organic buildup to the moment.

Playing son Trip, a reality TV writer, Aaron Barry falls slightly short. Barry uses a bag of limited, stock, overly done gestures to emote. Torn between parents and sister, his transitions are voids we don’t see because he’s too intent on getting the next point across by flopping onto a couch or flinging a pillow.

Then there is Polly’s sister, Silda, providing the majority of the comic relief. Precise timing and nuance of delivery in a character like this are crucial, and Kim Glover plays them with ease. Her pain is palpable in the comedy. Hiding in her post-alcoholic stupor, Silda has long portions of stage time with no lines, yet we see Glover listening and reacting to every word, working to keep long-buried guilt from surfacing.

All the action takes place on a stunning set by Ron Lindblom. The lines of apt midcentury modern architecture are complemented by touches of interior design that one might see in homes of the Palm Springs community today. The round fireplace is a perfect focal point for the metaphor of the play: Families fan the flames of dysfunction even as they’re desperate to put the fire out.