Family Is No Holiday: Other Desert Cities Review
The holidays are hell for the Wyeth family of “Other Desert Cities,” as they seem to be for most fictional families, far more than real ones. Home for the holidays for the first time in six years, daughter Brooke confronts her Reagan-like parents – show business folk who went into Republican politics – with a book she has just written about the family’s darkest time, the suicide of their son after he was implicated in a Vietnam War-era bombing of a military recruiting station
When I reviewed “Other Desert Cities” last season at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater, I called the acting extraordinary but the script less so largely because of its final plot twist. It has now transferred to Broadway’s Booth Theater, three of its five-member cast the same – Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach as the charming parents, and Thomas Sadoski as the apolitical TV-producer brother – and two replacements, Rachel Griffiths instead of Elizabeth Marvel as the leftist, once-broken Brooke, and Judith Light instead of Linda Lavin as the in-recovery alcoholic aunt who egged Brooke on to write her scathing memoir.
“Other Desert Cities” remains rewarding because of the performances. The cast changes are something of a revelation. Rachel Griffiths, making her New York stage debut, feels more a part of this California family, even though the actress is actually from Australia. This may be in part because we know her from her roles on TV in both “Six Feet Under” and “Brothers and Sisters” in which she plays a Californian. But she is also more physical – she several times playfully kicks her brother. Marvel felt much more the darker and darker-haired New Yorker, not just estranged from her family but seceded from it.
Judith Light seems more a part of the family as well, but in a different way. Lavin was a whiskey-voiced wise-cracker – a quipping actress playing to the (appreciative) audience; Light is more evidently dysfunctional, much more lost as a character and lost in her character.
These are not better or worse interpretations, just different, and equally engaging. What I wrote about the play in February still holds true: The five actors form a nearly musical quintet that allows for virtuosic solos and orchestrated clashes, as well as quiet duets of repartee. The precision of these performances is what makes “Other Desert Cities” worth watching, even when it’s not worth listening to.
Jon Robin Baitz, who had precocious success in his twenties with such plays as “The Substance of Fire” and conceived the television series “Brothers & Sisters,” is only now, at age 50, making his Broadway debut. Others have been lauding his latest play as a breakthrough, comparing it to the work of Arthur Miller or Lillian Hellman. Surely, “Other Desert Cities” is smart, swift, with plenty of quips and satisfying confrontations.
But Jon Robin Baitz is no Arthur Miller or Lillian Hellman, at least not in “Other Desert Cities.” Despite its allusions to Reagan and the left-right divide, “Other Desert Cities” is not really about politics – not really grappling with, say, the dysfunction of the polarized American body politic. It’s Reagan without Reaganism, focusing on the charisma of the man (or a man like Reagan) and the dynamics of a Reagan-like family. We are drawn to these characters the way we were drawn to the Reagans, for their celebrity and their sunniness and their contradictions. The ending bothers me less than it did in part because it no longer comes as a surprise, in part because (without giving away the particulars) I realize it is of a piece with the apolitical nature of what only appears to be a political play. Baitz is not old-school Broadway; he’s no Broadway baby. He’s a TV baby, a child of California, graduate of Beverly Hills High School even (though, because of his father’s job, he grew up in Brazil and South Africa). I do not invoke television automatically as condemnation; I think theater critics should get out of the wide-spread habit of dismissing a work of theater by saying it resembles a television series. There have been many deeply entertaining TV shows, and Baitz has worked on several of them. It seems unlikely, however, that “Other Desert Cities” will be routinely studied or regularly revived the way Miller’s work is. That would be its second surprise ending.
Other Desert Cities
By Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by Joe Mantello. Sets by John Lee Beatty, costumes by David Zinn, lighting by Kenneth Posner, sound by Jill B C DuBoff, music by Justin Ellington.
Cast: Stockard Channing (Polly Wyeth), Rachel Griffiths (Brooke Wyeth), Stacy Keach (Lyman Wyeth), Judith Light (Silda Grauman) and Thomas Sadoski (Trip Wyeth).
Ticket prices: $55 to $126
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes, with one intermission.
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