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Ask ASK PLAYBILL.COM: A Question About a Scenic Element in Other Desert Cities Ask answers a question about the fireplace in the Broadway production of Other Desert Cities. Is it a metaphor or just a set?

Rachel Griffiths and Stacy Keach in Other Desert Cities.
Rachel Griffiths and Stacy Keach in Other Desert Cities. Photo by Joan Marcus


Ask answers your (and sometimes our own) theatre-related questions. To ask a question, email [email protected]. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.

Question: In Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities on Broadway, I was struck by the scenic metaphor of the tiny flame that flickers in the living-room fireplace on designer John Lee Beatty's set. It reminds me of the Eternal Flame that's on John F. Kennedy's grave. Considering the play is about a lost son in a politically-connected family, I wondered how this image came about in the production — is it in the script, was it the idea of the designer or did director Joe Mantello come up with it?  — V. Smith, Sewell, NJ

Other Desert Cities, which premiered to acclaim at Lincoln Center Theater's Off-Broadway Newhouse Theater in spring 2011, transferred to the Broadway stage last fall. The drama's characters are all members of the Wyeth clan, the parents of which are politically well-connected within the Republican Party. Prodigal daughter Brooke Wyeth returns home to Palm Springs for Christmas after a six-year absence. She arrives with a bombshell in hand: the manuscript of a memoir she plans to publish, much of it dwelling on her brother, a political radical who disappeared years ago.

John Lee Beatty's posh, polished contemporary ranch-home set was widely praised in reviews as aptly capturing the lifestyle of the elder Wyeths. The New York Times described "the desert-toned, tastelessly tasteful digs of Lyman and Polly Wyeth" as "spot-on." Central to the living room is a modern fireplace, a trumpet-like metal flue hovering over a round base. It is here the "eternal flame" flickers.  

Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach
Photo by Joan Marcus
Eternal flames — small, purposefully lit fires that are never extinguished — are an ancient human concept, an aspect of many old cultures and religions. However, until one was lit to commemorate slain U.S. President John F. Kennedy, such flames were not used in tribute to specific individual people. (Most are used to commemorate soldiers fallen in a particular war.) To answer the question about the flame in Other Desert Cities, we turned to designer Beatty, who spoke on behalf of himself, Mantello and Baitz.

"Although I appreciate that the audience member recognized that in both cases it is a flame in a '60s architectural context, it was part of the original script," Beatty said in an email. "Director Joe Mantello and I were referencing classic '60s Palm Springs architecture. What V. Smith might have acknowledged is how very, very rare it is to see actual flame on a Broadway stage. This was accomplished by the new smokeless fuel technology, Stacy Keach piling on logs that are actually fireproof, and a lot of collaborative effort by the designer, the prop person, the production manager and the fire department."

So, no greater message in that flame — except in the eyes of some playgoers, who, in decoding what they see, get a richer experience. Officially, though, the creators were seeking clean design and a proper way to execute it without burning down the Booth Theatre.

View video highlights from Other Desert Cities:


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