Other Desert Cities: Theater Review
Jon Robin Baitz
Stockard Channing, Rachel Griffiths, Stacy Keach, Judith Light, Thomas Sadoski
Jon Robin Baitz's first new play in six years has ripened significantly in its move to Broadway.
NEW YORK – When it premiered in January, Jon Robin Baitz’s first new play in six years, Other Desert Cities, was smart and entertaining. But in its move to Broadway, this domestic dustup has ripened significantly. It has acquired a riveting center in the raw performance of Rachel Griffiths, who makes a knockout New York stage debut. With discreet adjustments to the text and more penetrating characterizations all around from the sterling cast, the balance between comedy and intense family drama has been fine-tuned in richly satisfying ways.
Political divisions within a well-heeled California family with roots in the film industry and the Republican old guard are at the center of Baitz’s return to the stage following his bruising experience as creator non grata of Brothers & Sisters. (He was bumped from that ABC show after its first season when the network had incompatible ideas about its development.)
But in the non-political sense, this is an uncommonly democratic play. All five characters have surprising layers; their behavior is never straight-up black or white. And the entire ensemble, irrespective of their characters’ centrality, is given the scope to shine in Joe Mantello’s expertly honed production. (It’s scheduled to play the Ahmanson in Los Angeles next November.) That means they each get an equitable share of the wittiest zingers (the first act, in particular, is a one-liner-palooza), but also bracing moments of conflict and self-exposure.
In addition to Brothers & Sisters alum Griffiths, holdover company members Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach and Thomas Sadoski are joined by Judith Light. She defines the hard edges as well as the softer ambiguities of the family lush in a marvelous damn-it-all-to-hell performance.
The occasion is a 2004 Christmas family gathering at the Palm Springs home of Polly and Lyman Wyeth (Channing, Keach), rendered in perfectly kitschy, upscale easy-living desert style by designer John Lee Beatty.
Longtime cronies of the Reagans, Lyman is a former Paramount gunslinger, appointed G.O.P. chairman by Ronnie, while Polly adopted Nancy’s appearance-is-everything doctrine, transforming herself from a Texan Jew into a scathingly forthright goy. Now retired, they remain active on the Republican fundraiser circuit.
If conservative Polly is strictly Saks, her similarly mouthy liberal sister, Silda (Light), is unapologetically Loehmann’s. There’s never a hair out of place in Polly’s sleek bottle-blond helmet, while the gray roots of Silda’s brunette mop tell us everything. The sisters co-wrote a popular series of 1960s MGM comedies about a fun-loving Pismo Beach girl (think Gidget). Their prickly bond has its limits, but with Silda fresh out of rehab and broke, she’s forced to put up with Polly’s acerbic superiority.
Visiting for the holidays but with multiple quick exit plans in place is the Wyeths’ son Trip (Sadoski), who produces a hit fake-courtroom reality show and works hard at being happy. His sister Brooke (Griffiths) is not so good at it. Barely arrived from the East coast, she flinches at “this endless sunshine.” Her parents bristle at depressive Brooke’s “abhorrent and repugnant lefty politics,” but they cut her some slack given that she’s on shaky ground after a recent breakdown.
That changes when Brooke reveals that her long-stalled second novel is in fact a memoir chronicling her childhood and that of her late brother Henry, a subject normally avoided. His involvement many years earlier with an underground radical group implicated Henry in a bombing, which led to his apparent suicide. With the news that the most painful part of the Wyeths’ lives is about to be excerpted in the New Yorker, plans for a convivial country club dinner are off.
With humor, sensitivity and invigorating anger, Baitz is doing here what he set out to do in Brothers & Sisters as originally conceived, which is to examine the fractiousness of American politics through the prism of one family. In fact he succeeds so well at this – with neither right nor left emerging unblemished -- that it’s mildly disappointing when the play becomes a family-secret story in the second act, particularly given that not all the revelations concerning Henry are entirely plausible.
But while in the play’s original incarnation, Act II felt somewhat hasty and overstuffed in its melodramatic tangents, Baitz has now chiseled this part into something more thematically coherent and moving. In Griffiths’ drawn face -- implacable yet painfully aware of her emotional fragility -- we see a gradual understanding that family, as much as movies or politics, operates on carefully constructed fictions as well as truths. And in its examination of guilt and recriminations, the play shows unexpected compassion, thoughtfully considering the responsibility of a writer to his or her subjects.
The cast could not be better. Under Mantello’s firm hand, the actors never strike a false note. In their speech rhythms and body language with one another -- their relaxed intimacy or wary distance, their camaraderie or distrust, their easy banter or silent, hostile regard – they are unmistakably a family.
Venue: Booth Theatre, New York (runs through Jan. 8)
Cast: Stockard Channing, Rachel Griffiths, Stacy Keach, Judith Light, Thomas Sadoski
Playwright: Jon Robin Baitz
Director: Joe Mantello
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: David Zinn
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Sound designer: Jill BC DuBoff
Music: Justin Ellington
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater, in association with Bob Boyett