'Other Desert Cities' Theater Review: 'Brothers & Sisters' Creator Explores U.S. Politics Through One Family
Jon Robin Baitz has made no secret of the thorny experience of his hiatus in television, and his return to playwriting to some degree fulfils the thwarted mission he set himself in creating ABC’s Brothers & Sisters.
He was nudged off that show after its first season when the network went in a different direction. Baitz had originally envisioned it as a reflection on the American political divide, viewed through the prism of one family. That’s one aspect of Other Desert Cities, his first play to premiere in six years.
The new work has a lot more on its overstuffed mind, however, including the writer’s ambivalent view of his home state, California, its sunny veneer barely masking its broken dreams. He takes on the hypocrisy of Old Guard Republicans, whose fiscal terror keeps them silent while hatemongering zealots take control of the conservative movement – and the country. Also up for discussion is the responsibility of the writer toward his subjects, and the consequences of co-opting other people’s stories.
At times very funny, at others emotionally intense, the play explores what one character refers to as “divergent truths.” The domestic drama weighs what happens when a daughter’s memoir threatens to compromise her socially prominent parents’ carefully controlled public personae, causing skeletons to come tumbling out of the family closet.
Those parents were part of the Reagans’ inner circle: Lyman Wyeth (Stacy Keach), a one-time Hollywood gunslinger who followed Ronnie into politics, and his brittle wife, Polly, a waspified Texan Jew. A terrific role for Stockard Channing, Polly gets the play’s most sardonic zingers. From her flat-ironed blond hair to her expensive shoes, she is the embodiment of surrogate big sister Nancy’s lesson that appearance is everything.
Completing the clan are their grown children, Trip (Thomas Sadoski), a reality TV producer in Los Angeles, and Brooke (Elizabeth Marvel), a depressive leftist writer living on the East Coast, whose recent breakdown still causes her parents anxiety. They convene for Christmas at the Wyeths’ Palm Springs home -- all spacious, sandstone-brick ‘70s desert-chic in John Lee Beatty’s impeccable design.
Also in residence and Polly’s equal in the one-liner department is her colorful sister and former Hollywood screenwriting partner, Silda (Linda Lavin), fresh out of rehab, broke and shooting wistful glances at the whiskey decanter.
Aided by a first-rate cast and director Joe Mantello’s customary polish, Baitz has lost none of his talent for incisive characterization and whip-smart dialogue. If his hyper-articulate characters often sound like high-end sitcom refugees, that doesn’t detract from their credibility as a family unit, with all the frazzled affections and frictions that entails. The comedy also serves to elevate the mood before the bomb goes off.
That would be Brooke’s imminent book, in which she digs into her radical activist brother’s suicide and her parents’ role in it. As the dust settles and the Wyeths react in adversarial ways, Baitz considers too many new tangents, some of them contrived and unresolved. The hurried second act veers toward overplotted soap. But if the play doesn’t fully satisfy, the superb actors keep it compelling.
Marvel occasionally strays into the expressionistic mode of her work with Belgian director Ivo van Hove, which can be jarring, but Brooke is a strong central figure, torn between emotional fragility and fierce protectiveness of her work.
The invaluable Lavin layers an entire back-story and a whole spectrum of conflicts into her jaded line readings and knowing looks. Keach brings warmth and gravitas, while Channing makes the familiar figure of the controlling consort neither clichéd nor entirely unsympathetic. Best of all is Sadoski’s peacemaker, Trip, content to pass for the lightweight of the bunch but ultimately the most clear-sighted.
Venue: Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, New York (through Feb. 27)
Cast: Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach, Linda Lavin, Elizabeth Marvel, 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 JC DuBoff
Music: Justin Ellington
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater