Other Desert Cities

By Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by Joe Mantello
Featuring Stockard Channing, Linda Lavin, Stacy Keach, Elizabeth Marvel
Lincoln Center Theater, Mitzi Newhouse, 150 West 65th Street
production web site: http://www.lct.org/showMain.htm?id=201
in previews, opens January 13, 2011

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
December 29, 2010

Preview/review disclaimer.  For a week I have pondered the ethics of reviewing this play, in previews when I attended.  I have decided that I shall register my thoughts here now because [1] I liked the play a lot and [2] I paid for the ticket and [3] there aren’t at this moment competing editorial policy restrictions affecting my choice to review — i.e. no one is paying me to hold off until the invitation comes to view the show as a guest of the production.  My reviewing rhythm has slowed lately, not because I’ve been staying out of theatres but because I have been attending films (5 or so since Christmas Day) or repeat visits to show like A Little Night Music. So we begin the new year with a splendid show viewed in the last days of the prior year, that has yet to open formally.  Stranger things have happened.

Stacy Keach, Elizabeth Marvel, Stockard Channing, Linda Lavin, Thomas Sadoski (photo: Joan Marcus)

“Families get terrorized by their weakest member.” (Polly Wyeth)

Family in focus.  Sun-drenched stage set deep in the Mitzi Newhouse evokes the Sinatra-era Rat Pack Palm Springs architecture: open fireplace, windows, light brick, light furniture. reflective glint of sun and moon off the surface planes of the pool outside.  Quite a spectacular setting for a funny and deep and layered family reveal of secrets.  Spendid acting, a spanking new play rife with possibilities.  Smart, well-told, evocative, moving, resonant.  Theatre to be seen.

Our play is set primarily in 2004 — close enough to 9/11 for that to be an easy and painful political flash point for apparently Republican middle-aged Wyeth parents Lyman (Stacy Keach) and Polly (Stockard Channing), their more liberal children Trip (Thomas Sadowski) and Brooke (Elizabeth Marvel), and Polly’s ex-writing partner sister Silda Grauman (Linda Lavin).  Beloved Aunt Silda and Brooke share several things: humor, love of substances, and a little mental illness.  Hollywood and entertainment worlds animate this family’s story.  Dad was an actor; mom was a writer with her sister; son currently crafts a television reality show; and daughter is a novelist who has crafted a memoir that provides the drama for the story.  At this Christmas in Palm Springs, the secularly Jewish Wyeth parents welcome Brooke from a stay at a mental hospital and Silda from a stay in an alcoholism sanitarium.  Everyone receives  the news that Brooke is going to publish a memoir that will address the core family mystery of an eldest child who died or killed himself as a result of war resistance activities.  The family never talks about him; the surviving siblings never knew the truth of their older brother; the adults blame each other; and the truth will out.  The truths (plural) do come out.

Not every opportunity of character and situation is followed, and isn’t that what makes great theatre? For this viewer in particular stories in the distant and immediate past involving mother Polly and her sister Aunt Silda seemed resonant and un-elaborated — they may await sequels by this playwright or could simply exist as the potential luscious stories each audience member can individually imagine.  Rich and yet spare.

The set (John Lee Beatty) and lighting (Kenneth Posner) and costumes (David Zinn) perfectly evoke a place and a lifestyle.  Keach does Dad, Sadoski does bright successful youngest son with aplomb — supportive of sister but the emotions roll off his back.  The star turns are by the women.  Channing does Mary Tyler Moore in the 1980 film Ordinary People with more than one twist, including a past writing career with her bright and troubled sister played by funny, beautiful Lavin.  And then there are the wonders of Marvel as the daughter emerging from a depressive haze, who seeks to out the family secrets in a memoir, and may find a path to other stories she had no idea existed.

No plot point reveals here from this early review.  Just full-blown adoration of the ensemble and this text in evolution.

© Martha Wade Steketee (January 3, 2011)

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