When you enter the Booth Theater for a performance of “Other Desert Cities”, you immediately face the gracious Palm Springs living room of “Polly” (played by Stockard Channing) and “Lyman Wyeth” (played by Stacy Keach), a retired, affluent, political “establishment” couple, reminiscent of the Reagans. This set is awash in sand-colored, neutral beige tones with a tasteful, meticulously decorated Christmas tree in the background. Yet you barely notice this usually vibrant symbol of a joyful, familial time of year. This deliberately soft, calm design lulls you into a false sense of comfort. Do not trust the clever dialogue and witty family banter softly tossed like beach balls. There is quick sand in this upscale desert town.
The Wyeth’s adult daughter, “Brooke” (played by Rachel Griffiths in an auspicious Broadway debut) is visiting from Long Island for the holidays. Her younger brother, “Trip” (Justin Kirk) is also present for this family Christmas, but we sadly learn early on that their other brother, Henry, passed on some 20+ years prior. You immediately think “Uh oh…There’s a back-story here.” We soon meet boozy, sassy, stinging “Aunt Silda,” played by a pitch perfect Judith Light. Silda jokingly banters about her costly Pucci blouse — but we know better — and Silda damn well knows faux when she wears it. Instinctively, we know that we had better not get too close to that odd colored desert sand.
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” writes the great novelist, Leo Tolstoy. Fortunately (or not) we don’t have to examine our own living rooms to support such a statement. We can simply revisit the problems of the Tyrones, the Lomans, the Westons – the theater’s iconic complex dysfunctional families. And so I add the Wyeths to this illustrious list. It started with the classic Greek House of Atreus and continues onto the stage of “Other Desert Cities.” Unique conflicts, shadows, and secrets surround the Wyeths — always the stuff of great family drama.
I dare not reveal any family secrets. As Aunt Silda says, “Telling the truth is an expensive hobby,” but we know that there was a damn good reason for Brooke’s six year, 3,000-mile absence from her parents, and the reasons were surely not financial. Familial does not imply familiar. Brooke is about to publish a revealing family memoir. This is Brooke’s purgation, her way of dealing with her depression, which has held a grip on her life for far too long. Her parents plead with her to hold off on publication until they have passed on, to not make their lives public fodder, but Brooke is insistent. You know these people: the upscale, politically conservative parents; the sassy, childless, supportive, yet fragile Aunt; the loving, keenly observant younger brother; the flawed, sincere older brother; the troubled, talented, sensitive sister.
What truly makes this play a “must see” is a remarkable ensemble cast, each actor better then the other. Bravo to Joe Mantello for superior direction and the superb casting by Daniel Swee. The five cast members are perfectly aligned like the five fingers of our hand…before that hand gets played and all the cards are on the table.
Note: The experienced Elizabeth Marvel will again step into the part of Brooke on March 6, 2012, which she originated when “Other Desert Cities” was presented at Lincoln Center last year. Expect the glove to fit that hand perfectly.WHAT: OTHER DESERT CITIES A Play by Jon Robin Baitz Directed by Joe Mantello Running Time: Approx. 2 hours, 15 minutes with one 15-minute intermission WHERE: Booth Theatre 222 West 45th Street New York, New York TICKETS: Tickets may be purchased here. By: Joanne Theodorou