Robbie Baitz is a wonderful writer who I've never met but we exchanged a great many emails during the last Writers Guild Strike. He created the TV series Brothers and Sisters, and wrote the play Vicuna which I saw in its world premiere production in Culver City last November, and wrote about here. (It was probably the most bizarre experience I've ever had in the theater. The play is a very funny, but dark, scathing and ultimately very-serious satire of an outlandish character who is clearly based on Donald Trump running for president. What began its life no doubt as a comic, but bleak cautionary tale of such a ludicrous idea, its life took a complete turn when I saw it the day after Trump won the presidential election. As I describe in the article, it was an utterly odd and otherworldly being in the theater that night. I mentioned this to him, and he said pithily how odd it was all been, as you might imagine. Profoundly difficult as it was to watch that night, I suspect the passage of time -- while still difficult to watch, but not as raw -- has given the play an added richness.)
Other Desert Cities was written in 2011 and was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Play, and won one of its stars, Judith Light, the Tony as Best Featured Actress. It's a terrific play with many of the same attributes of Vicuna -- thoughtful, crisp dialogue, very funny, and turning extremely serious. It centers around a daughter returning to the family home for the holidays, as she's about to publish a book about a difficult time in the family's life. It really is very funny, but deals with edgy family issues that break apart in the second act. But it's handled with such craft that the whole thing is engrossing and a pleasure.
The whole cast of five actors were excellent, with an interesting bit of casting. The matriarch is played by Ellen Geer, theater founder Will Geer's daughter, and the character of her daughter in the play is played by her own real-life daughter, Willow Geer. Also standout was Mark Bramhall as the father. And Rafael Goldstein as the brother and Melora Marshall, who plays the children's aunt -- and in real life is Willow Geer's aunt -- were excellent, as well. (And lest anyone question my judgement here, this is the rave review from the Los Angeles Times.)
As much fun is the venue itself.
The Theatricum Botanicum is a complex in the wooded area of Topanga Canyon started in 1951 by actor Will Geer, best known for his role as the grandfather on The Waltons, but who had a long career acting and as a political activist. He was a member of the Group Theatre in New York, and traveled the country entertaining at government work camps with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Burl Ives. He was blacklisted in the early 1950s for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Its worth noting that he began his early living studying to be a botanist, getting his Masters degree in the subject at the University of Chicago. The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum carries that sensibility of all its interests to its grounds.
A slight digression. This was my first time back to the grounds in several decades. It's a bit of a drive, around 40-45 minutes, and it also fell a bit off my radar, though I'd always intended to go back, liking the venue so much. My last visit was memorable. I'd had a first date with a very pretty girl I liked, but it almost didn't come off. I'd been in great pain earlier in the day, and in fact one of my superiors at Universal Studios sent me home from work, in fact threatening to beat me up if i didn't leave. I was still uncomfortable at home, but really wanted to go on this date, and I drove us out there. I remember the night well -- it wasn't a play, but a concert -- Burl Ives, of all people, and discomfort aside, I loved it. I suspect I wasn't at my best that evening, what with the agonizing pain earlier in the day, and alas we didn't have a second date. Making it all the more challenging was that she lived way out in Pasadena, so I had to drive her 40 minutes back home and then I returned another 40 minutes back to my apartment. I was okay, but barely, with gritted teeth. And that night, I slept about two hours. Though there was a lot of writhing while I was awake. What I learned the next day when describing the symptoms to my dad who was a doctor is that...well, I had kidney stones. (For those who don't know, this has been described as the closest a man can come to experiencing the pain of child birth.) The moral of this story, as I've often told people, is that it shows how far a guy will go to have a date with a pretty girl.
So, this was the return to the place. As I walked up the path, I felt like shouting out, "I'm back! Did you miss me?!!"
The centerpiece is, of course, the main stage, which is an outdoor amphitheater. I'm going to guess it seats about 750. The lower tier is wooden benches and backs (oak perhaps? I'm not good at that sort of thing), which were surprisingly comfortable. The upper tier is cement. There are backs, but they're recessed a bit. I tried it out, and it was actually fine, thought the wooden are far better.
The environment is wonderful. It feels reasonably intimate, and the acoustics are good -- and it's a pleasure to see a play without microphones. That's no small feat, given that it's outdoors, so you don't have baffling to improve the sound, and the seating goes up a ways, so voices have to carry. And all the while, the actors are competing with the sound of crickets in the night, and any traffic that may be passing by on Topanga Canyon Road.
(There are no crickets during the daytime matinee performances, though traffic might be a little heavier, though it's still not the busiest of roads. Nighttime does get pretty chilly in the canyon, especially later in the season, but I chose an evening performance between the daytime there can get warm during the summer. At least if it's chilly, you can bundle up. And it wasn't that bad. A sweater and light jacket was fine.
What I particularly like is that you are indeed out there in the woods. The background is the forest. And that tree you see on stage -- it's not a prop. It's a tree growing on the spot. They built the stage around it.
Anyway, it was a wonderful play, terrifically performed and a great theater environment. It only took me a couple decades to get back -- and no, I don't think it was psychosomatic reasons that kept me away... -- and I look forward to back next season. Or at least not in a few decades.