Other Desert Cities: Theater Review

Trenchant drama explores the interweaving of the psychological and the political with accumulating power.

A holiday reunion in Palm Springs is fraught with tensions between conservative parents and their liberal children.

The setup of Other Desert Cities is not particularly original: a fragile daughter visits her overbearing family for Christmas with the dubious gift of her new manuscript of a candid memoir of their past. Nor is the early development of the premise, a holiday reunion fraught with tensions between Palm Springs power conservatives and liberal offspring in the wake of George W. Bush’s recent re-election in 2004, the glib one-liners as pleasingly comfortable as those in any contemporary boulevard comedy. However, every character onstage is an actor or writer, and they know their way around their dialogue. Playwright Jon Robin Baitz is after bigger game, and it requires some preliminary misdirection on his part to undertake this long day’s journey into night -- one centered, aptly, around reading.

The Wyeth clan can be venomous, domineering and peremptory, yet they are also intelligent, passionate and sincerely flowing with all manner of conditional love. Lyman (Robert Foxworth) is a former fashion plate star of Westerns and detective movies turned corporate spokesman, GOP party leader and ambassador, while matriarch Polly (JoBeth Williams) penned formula studio teen-pics and has been a proud gal pal of Nancy Reagan, Betsy Bloomingdale and Leonore Annenberg. Her alcoholic sister and erstwhile writing partner, Silda (Jeannie Berlin), has just lapsed severely after many years of sobriety. Daughter Brooke (Robin Weigert) produced an acclaimed novel and endured years of creative block leading to a depressive breakdown, while younger boy Trip (Michael Weston) has enjoyed success creating and showrunning a five-shows-a-week reality series about contentious small claims litigants. And then, inevitably, there is the missing dead elder son.

All have beefs and convictions. Baitz scores the easy points first, about the hypocrisy and callousness of the subsidized privileged, dismissing the needs of others as unearned entitlements, raising the stakes with each sliver of revelation. Admirably, he deftly skirts any righteous judgments as he weaves the contentious points of view. Baitz scorns the moral superiority assumed by the triumphalist American right as if financial success certified one’s superior character. He also recognizes the murderous complicity of this certitude in wars and senseless death of many stripes.

Yet for all their blunt, monstrous behavior, the parents nevertheless also speak considerable truth and sense among their posturing nonsense, most of it as unheard by their censorious relations as they fail to perceive the consequences of their rancorous selfishness. Everyone on display represents a distinct variety of self-absorption, failing in large degree to understand themselves because of their incapacity to understand those dearest to them. Those primal requirements of a meaningful life, decency and compassion, are demanded of everyone else while clinging to an unyielding personal narrative comprised of secrets and lies, the unknown and the hidden.

Other Desert Cities accretes complexity and impact as it inexorably drives toward its final revelation. While the strategy may be Bernard Shaw lite and the methodology as implacably Ibsen-esque as Arthur Miller, Baitz has his own voice and knows his milieu intimately well (the barbs at Palm Springs are precise), his observations are rich and his arguments intricate and layered. The cast here does him proud, as each provides a spin of behavioral originality that provides surprising and refreshing individuality to what might easily have slipped into established types.

If I might prefer the failed grand tragedy Baitz attempted in his ambitious and commendable The Paris Letter, what he attempts here is possibly even more difficult: to find the particular ineffable tragedy of the inevitable shortcomings of examined lives, however earnest the effort, along with the possibility that even those who live conscious lies, desperate to “pass” and evade discovery of their “true” nature, can achieve some unrecognized private nobility.

Venue: Mark Taper Forum (runs through Jan. 6)

Cast: JoBeth Williams, Robin Weigert, Robert Foxworth, Michael Weston, Jeannie Berlin

Director: Robert Egan

Playwright: Jon Robin Baitz

Set Designer: Takeshi Kata

Lighting Designer: Lap Chi Chu

Sound Designer: Adam Phalen

Costume Designer: Alex Jaeger

Music: Karl Fredrik Lundeberg