The stage is marble and the cast appears in dark hooded robes, their faces chalk-white and eyes sunken; the theater feels unusually cold. A young woman slinks around the stage playing the waterphone, creating steely, alienating music, and King Amyclas of Sparta (Philip Goodwin) has a visage so wrinkled and worn that it gives Beckett’s a run for its money. In the prologue, we are told, “The title lends no expectation here / Of apish laughter,” and director Selina Cartmell’s production certainly holds good to that promise: even the blood is black.
Brooke Wyeth (Rachel Griffiths) complains that her family never talks about anything, though you’d never know it from Other Desert Cities, a play so laden with expository monologues and near-endless confessions that it leaves its audience crying out for the subtlety of Neil LaBute. This monster of a production, which runs for over two hours (but feels more like four), hits the ground running, leaving us barely any time to get comfortable before the powder keg goes off—by the time you’ve found your seat, Ms. Griffiths is already dropping the name of the play, a clunker of a trope usually reserved for dramatic climaxes.
In a 1930 introduction to The Philanderer, George Bernard Shaw writes, “There is a disease to which plays as well as men become liable with advancing years. In men it is called doting, in plays dating. The more topical the play the more it dates. The Philanderer suffers from this complaint.” Reading it, one might be inclined to agree with Shaw; though it nicely lampoons both those who pride themselves on being intellectual progressives and the stodgy men who stand in their way, the social problems it addresses are by today fairly trite: is a man’s love more important than his respect? What is women’s place in intellectual society? How is the “Old Guard” to deal with outrageous sexual behavior of the young, turn-of-the-century Londoners? Mrs. Warren’s Profession, another of Shaw’s “plays unpleasant,” was revived at the Comedy Theatre in London several years ago and the result was leaden and plodding; those characters’ problems were simply too alien, and director Michael Rudman took no effort to make them relevant today.