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At the theater, details make the difference
Theater

At the theater, details make the difference

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The architect Mies van der Rohe said “God is in the details.” But people often quote it another way: “The devil is in the details.”

Perhaps the details are where they live together.

It’s true in theater, at least. Apt small touches can make the audience sigh with satisfaction, confident of where we are in time and place because the actors, directors and especially the designers conspire to let us know through smart, well-chosen signals. Conversely, clumsy or ill-advised details distract us, taking us “out of the play” as effectively as, say, the unwrapping of candy or the ringing of a cellphone.

Sometimes both kinds of details coexist in the same production. Take a look at “Other Desert Cities” by Jon Robin Baitz, currently on stage at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

The story of the Wyeths, a wealthy Palm Springs family with a terrible secret, “Other Desert Cities” exactly tells us where we are before the actors step on stage. Michael Ganio’s gorgeous set celebrates California nonchalance with a spacious, blonde living room where tailored pale furniture beckons at every turn: chez Wyeth, more comfortable seats are available than there are people to relax.

One glass door opens on a curved stucco wall, leading to the pool; another leads to the tennis court, and upstage we can glimpse the deliberately understated dining room. Lighting designer Phil Monat floods the space with light. It’s the holidays, so there’s a tall Christmas tree — which Ganio has cleverly decorated in Hanukkah shades of blue and silver. After all, the lady of the house is Jewish, though her husband (a former movie actor and former ambassador appointed by his good friend Ronald Reagan) is not.

The costume designer, David Kay Mickelsen, employs his arts to give us clues to the characters. Lyman Wyeth (Anderson Matthews) practically gleams when he enters in tennis clothes, almost as bright-white as his lush hair. His wife Polly (Dee Hoty) is a beige-and-gold beauty, with bold jewelry set off by understated sweaters and slacks. Her flamboyant sister Silda (Glynis Bell) prefers bright colors, though Polly points out that Silda’s Pucci top is a knockoff.

Polly’s grown son Trip (Alex Hanna) wears shorts, like a boy — which, in this family constellation, he always will be. But her daughter Brooke (Celeste Ciulla) — a slob who favors tie-dyed tops, leggings and long ponytail — has obviously rejected the family’s aesthetic; soon after the play opens, Polly urges Brooke to let her take her shopping on Rodeo Drive. Brooke’s not interested.

Is that a symptom of illness? We know Brooke, the long-blocked writer of one acclaimed novel, is recovering from a serious depression. Is her coiffure part of her rejection of her impeccably groomed family, which she is about to make public in an explosive memoir?

Or is it a symptom of carelessness, a misstep that shows the harm that the wrong detail can engender?

The misstep is that ponytail.

Polly, who not only is old enough to be Brooke’s mother but in fact is her mother, wears her honey hair long, smooth and artfully highlighted. All right, it’s Palm Beach; maybe Polly (we’re talking about Polly, not actress Dee Hoty) has had a face lift or two. Maybe she looks younger than she is.

But do the math, and Polly has be close to 75; Brooke’s in her late 30s, maybe 40. Why do they look like contemporaries, albeit contemporaries with very different styles?

And why is it so easy to figure out their ages?

The blame for that goes straight to playwright Baitz. He’s the one who felt obliged to specify exactly when the events of the play transpire: Dec. 24, 2004. That means that the Wyeths have kept their secret for about 30 years.

Baitz lays out Polly’s life pretty clearly. But if he did not take pains to tell us that date — if he just said that it was a “recent” Christmas — he wouldn’t have brought the play’s arithmetic to the fore.

Instead, you find yourself wondering how old Polly was when she graduated from Bryn Mawr, when she wrote teen movies with her sister, when she had children, etc.

None of that would come up if we weren’t tied to 2004. But once you find yourself doing arithmetic, you know you have been distracted. It takes strong performances (and we have those, particularly from Matthews, Hoty and Bell) to bring you back again.

But, given that Baitz is the playwright, maybe he’s entitled to his details. In that case, there’s another way to muddle the question. The production could emphasize the age difference between Polly and Brooke with one of the easiest, oldest theatrical devices in the world: Wigs.

If Polly wore her hair in bouffant coif — perhaps in the style of Nancy Reagan, whom she says was “like a big sister” to her — that would age her fast, even if Brooke keeps her ponytail. Better yet, get a wig for Brooke, too — maybe a short, do-it-yourself pixie cut. If Brooke hacked off her hair by herself, that would tell us plenty about her mental state.

It would also get rid of another distraction, Brooke’s tendency to play with her hair (up in the ponytail, down and loose, up in the ponytail again). Brooke may be ill and she may have a difficult relationship with her parents, but she is not a little girl (as she explains, in more or less those very words, to her father). Playing with hair is a girl’s gesture, though. A short cut would eliminate the possibility.

This isn’t a complicated or expensive idea. Why wasn’t it used? Maybe it’s because no hairdresser is credited for this production — or, for that matter, for most productions.

Obviously, the other designers — Ganio, Mickelsen, Monat, sound designer Rusty Wandall — took pains to make their work enhance the mood and inform the characters that are established by director Steven Woolf and the actors. But apparently none of them was in charge of hairstyles. That’s too bad, because those tend to be one of the first things we notice about other people, onstage or off.

And because we are attentive to them, they convey loads of information, information in this case that might have addressed another, more serious problem: the chronological questions that never needed to be asked but that Baitz posed as soon as he specified that date.

“Other Desert Cities” at the Rep is an intriguing, emotional, surprising play, well-written and beautifully performed. It also has a combination of details that satisfy and details that detract. But all productions have to make those kinds of choices. Let’s think back to plays that have opened here since the start of the current season, last September. You can find examples of both.

The Missteps

“Gee’s Bend,” Mustard Seed Theatre • A tender story about an isolated Alabama community of African-American women who gained fame for the artistic quilts they made, the play was very enjoyable. But, although the real Gee’s Bend quilts, of course, included many different styles, the ones that made them famous have a distinctive look: vivid colors arranged in jazzy, abstract patterns. Mustard Seed should have commissioned a couple of quilts on those lines, at least for the backdrop. That way we’d know where we are and what we’re talking about.

“The Comedy of Errors,” St. Louis Shakespeare • Felia Davenport designed beautiful costumes, evocative of a farce by Moliere. But they had nothing to do with the spare, movable, modern white set, credited to George Spelvin. That’s an old theatrical convention; nobody is named George Spelvin. It’s a time-honored pseudonym that means somebody didn’t want to be credited for his or her work, for whatever reason. The dissonance between the costumes and the set forced you to wonder if at some point, the play’s designers stopped speaking to each other. The results certainly weren’t on good terms.

“Elf,” Fox Theatre • Based on the Will Ferrell movie, the musical alluded to the big scene when our hero, an elf-out-of-water named Buddy, goes to work at a New York department store. He’s supposed to help decorate for the holidays, but, being used to a North Pole Christmas, he goes overboard. The scene, however, was cut down to almost nothing, without enough props to make its point. Buddy can’t “overdo” if he barely has enough to “do” in the first place.

“Opus,” Repertory Theatre of St. Louis • Rachel Jenison played Grace, the first woman to join a celebrated string quartet. Jenison managed to give an effective performance despite a handicap, the world’s ugliest wig. It should have been a warning to “Other Desert Cities”: Get the hair right! Sad to say, some warnings go unheeded.

Crossed T’s and Dotted I’s

“My Fair Lady,” Stages St. Louis • Today, the scene in which Henry Higgins introduces Eliza Doolittle to London society at the Ascot Races is famous not only for its wonderful dialogue but for the Sir Cecil Beaton’s Edwardian costumes, a masterpiece of fashion in black and white. Presumably, Stages’ costume designer Dorothy Marshall Englis could have reprised Beaton’s style; it’s stunning. Instead, however, she went for a grand look, with lots of black lace and jewel tones. She kept the period line but gave it a fresh, moody elegance.

“Our Town,” Insight Theatre Company • Writer Thornton Wilder wanted his fable of small-town life to play out on a nearly bare stage. But designer Mark Wilson added a wonderful touch, covering the back wall with a huge blackboard. In the course of the play, the actors drew on it. It provided a brilliant schematic of Grover’s Corners, the town where the life of the play is lived — in a style that all its citizens would recognize from their days in its schoolhouse.

“Solemn Mockeries,” the Midnight Company • Joe Hanrahan charmed as a 19th-century crook trying to explain the crime — the forgery of Shakespeare’s hand — that made him the “most despised man in England.” But why has he risked returning to London to talk about it? Costumer Taylor Steward practically announces it by dressing him in a claret-colored velvet frock coat that’s frayed at the hem and cuffs. Enough said — or better, shown.

“Fly,” Repertory Theatre of St. Louis • The Tuskeegee Airmen of World War II were motivated by a desire to advance themselves, to break social barriers (they were African-Americans) and, of course, to fly. But how to convey the sense of exhilaration that they felt when they finally were airborne? This production pulled out all the stops.

Scenic designer Beowulf Borrit, projection designer Clint Allen, sound designer John Gromada and lighting designers Rui Rita and Jake DeGroot enveloped us in the dark of nighttime skies. Their effects combined so well to establish time and place that we almost felt as though we were flying over Berlin with them.

And, because they were playing military men of the 1940s, they barely had any hair under their flight caps to begin with. Conversely, the Tap Griot (Omar Edwards), the dancing embodiment of the airmen’s private emotions, wore long Rasta-style locks, underscoring his explosive force with every leap and twirl. In both cases, coiffure was not an issue.


‘Other Desert Cities’

When • Through March 9

Where • Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road

How much • $16.50-$75

More info • 314-968-4925; repstl.org

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Judith Newmark is the theater critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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