Now playing at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater, Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz is an intelligently written, well plotted drama of a family in crisis, brought to life by a marvelous ensemble cast. Don’t miss it!
We’ve all seen plays of this sort before (perhaps too often). Scene: A traditional family gathering. Action: Family members question their unexplained recollections, level accusations against one another, and confront their unresolved resentments. Denouement: To the relief of the actors on stage (and all too often to the relief of the audience as well), important unexpected truths eventually emerge. This is such a longstanding theatrical artifice that it is, by now, a virtual cliché and, in the hands of a less capable playwright than Jon Robin Baitz, a play of this sort is often not worth wasting one’s time on. But Baitz is no ordinary playwright and in Other Desert Cities, his contribution to this genre, he has created a terrific new play which may turn out to be one of this season’s big hits. You won’t be wasting your time on this one!
A brief synopsis: Lyman Wyeth (Stacy Keach) and his wife Polly (Stockard Channing) are leading members of that small endangered Hollywood species: the conservative Republican elite. He, a former movie star and U.S ambassador and she, a once successful screenwriter, are now comfortably settled in their luxurious Palm Springs home. Polly’s sister Silda Grauman (Linda Lavin), who collaborated with Polly in writing the successful “Hillary” film series, is present as well, on an extended stay at their home where she is recovering from alcoholism. Trip Wyeth (Thomas Sadoski), Lyman and Polly’s seemingly carefree son and the producer of a popular if inconsequential TV courtroom show, has joined his family for Christmas dinner - as has their clinically depressed daughter Brooke (Elizabeth Marvel), who has not written a book since her first novel six years ago but who now has flown in from Long Island, not only to celebrate the holidays with her family but also to present them with copies of her soon to be published new novel.
As it turns out, however, Brooke’s new book is not a novel at all, but rather a family memoir, revolving around her recollections and retrospective interpretation of the circumstances surrounding the loss of Henry, her other brother and best friend, a troubled, rebellious, drug-addled, terrorist wannabee and an apparent suicide. Publishing the book will rake up all sorts of painful memories for her family and draw considerable unsought attention to their lives but it is what Brooke feels she must do. And that is what makes this play such a pleasurable experience: it doesn’t simply tell the story of what actually happened to Henry, although that’s surely an important part of it, but it deals thoughtfully and intelligently with a great many of the existential questions the story provokes as well.
Does Brooke’s “art” trump her family’s real life concerns? Does the parent-child relationship require that the responsibilities of parents to their children are never-ending to the extent that the children, just by virtue of being offspring, get a “free pass” in life? Do mental disabilities brought about as a consequence of drug addiction, alcoholism or clinical depression relieve one of all responsibility for his or her actions? Can we ever fully remake ourselves or are important aspects of our personae largely determined by our genetic makeups and early upbringings? How reliable are our evaluations of one another based upon our stereotypical classifications? Indeed, can we ever truly know what makes another person tick?
The play itself is well constructed and extremely well written and Baitz deserves much of the credit for what I fully expect to be a successful run for this production. But credit must also go to an extremely talented ensemble cast. Channing is outstanding in the role of Polly (modeled at least in part on the life of Nancy Reagan), the complex, highly principled, controlling mother who is willing to abandon her Jewish roots in order to fit into mainstream Christian society and who would rather dine at her country club than prepare Christmas dinner for her family herself at home - but who is fierce in the defense of her family. Keach is equally effective as Lamar, the former actor and ambassador who attempts to use all his acting and diplomatic skills to bring about a resolution to the crisis confronting his family. Lavin is delightful in the role of Silda, the more relaxed alcoholic sister, who imbues the play with a measure of comic relief. Sadoski really plays a dual role: as Trip, he is not only Lyman and Polly’s son, Brooke and Henry’s brother, and Silda’s nephew, an important element in the familial mix, but he is also something of an observer, a narrator, almost a one-man Greek chorus, standing outside the play itself – and he does an exemplary job in both capacities. And Marvel, in the role of Brooke, arguably the most important character in the play, captures the disparate strands of her poorly integrated personality: her confused outlook on life, her dependency coupled with her independent spirit, her rebelliousness, her sense of entitlement, her denial of reality, her self-centeredness; she is superb.
The set by John Lee Beatty is perfect: a luxurious and obviously expensively furnished home but one that it bland, neutral and even, in a sense, characterless. There are no bright colors and the room lacks warmth: even the Christmas tree in the corner, decorated all in white rather than primary colors, is more of an elegant set piece than a gathering point for family and friends. It provides just the right setting for this particular family gathering.