Seen Off Broadway: That my wife and I recently added a sequel to our coproduction of 2008 has kept me away from the theatre, and I sort of wished I hadn’t resumed with Other Desert Cities, a Lincoln Center Theatre production at the Mitzi E. Newhouse. That’s nothing against Jon Robin Baitz’s play, the stage equivalent of a page-turner, with a juicy revelation every few minutes. It’s just that for the most part it will make you regret having a family, or adding to a family, or being part of a family.
Baitz, who has spent the last few years working on the TV show Brothers & Sisters, zeroes in on another contentious clan. The play is set on Christmas Eve 2004, and a pair of Republican lions, Lyman and Polly Wyeth (Stacy Keach and Stockard Channing), welcomes their cubs, Trip (Thomas Sadoski) and Brooke (Elizabeth Marvel), to their home in Palm Springs. Everyone is trying hard to be jolly, though the Iraq War has driven a wedge between the parents, old guard friends of “Ronnie and Nancy,” and their liberal children. The 800-lb. gorilla in the room is however the memory of an elder son, who committed suicide after he was implicated in an ideologically driven slaying during the Vietnam era. This catastrophe is one that Trip, who’d rather be attending to the reality show he produces in Hollywood, barely remembers, but has always weighed heavily on Brooke, a promising novelist just clambering back to life following a long period of depression and stasis. She has, though, written a new and highly anticipated work that she plans to show her family that day. Elation turns to hostility when she reveals that the book is an emotionally charged memoir about her brother’s passing—and further skeletons tumble from the closet as Silda (Linda Lavin), Polly’s remorseless sister, takes her seat in the living room and digs in.
Like I said, juicy, a big winter stew of dysfunction of various kinds, brought to a fine simmer by director Joe Mantello and a quintet of performances that really cook. You can’t go wrong with Channing and Lavin tearing at each other across the stage (or trying not to tear at each other; this is a play where everyone professes, uncertainly, to love each other) and I doubt Keach has ever been better, giving Lyman a vulnerability that belies his stature in the conservative community. Sadoski and particularly Marvel, in one of her higher-profile outings, are also terrific; see them before the West Coast snatches them up. If nothing else this tart, astringent play it will make you feel better about your own mundane family squabbles.
The house itself, an incisive John Lee Beatty set, has a self-satisfied air about it, with throw pillows and a fireplace for cold nights and other touches that are homey yet also somewhat chilly. Kenneth Posner’s lighting has the proper winter-light-in-the-desert feel to it, shifting imperceptibly to darkness as a trying day wears on. David Zinn’s costumes underscore the culture clash between generations (and get a laugh, when the impoverished Silda, drying out in the desert, insists that her attire is genuine Pucci). Jill BC DuBoff’s immaculate sound design ensures that every note of Justin Ellington’s score is heard at the top of both acts—and that every one of Baitz’s barbs hit their targets as the audience winces in shock and awe. Other Desert Cities plays through February 27, but is expected to transfer to Broadway in the fall.
Other Desert Cities