review: other desert cities

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Other Desert Cities

by Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by Joe Mantello
Featuring Stockard Channing, Judith Light, Rachel Griffiths
Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street
November 3, 2011 — open-ended
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
November 3, 2011

  • “I need seasons to mark where I am” (Brooke on her preference for New York versus California living)
  • “Your politics are offensive to normal people.” (lefty Silda to right wing Polly)
  • “I can’t write again about ephemera …. I don’t have an imagination.  We are all I have.” (Brooke on her perceived imperative to write about her family)
Rachel Griffiths and Stacy Keach. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The New York theatre world has had the glorious opportunity to be comparative production analysts, critics, dramaturgs over the past year with two full versions of the same production — one at Lincoln Center, one just opened at the Booth theatre.  Other Desert Cities, the hyper verbal, emotionally shaded and sharded, carefully crafted new play by Jon Robin Baitz benefits from all it learned in the first production in January and February of this year (and I viewed and was wowed by it in previews in December 2010).  Mid 20th century modern Palm Springs architecture (with functioning fireplace!) by John Lee Beatty still in place.  Lighting by Kenneth Posner remains delicate and nuanced and spare and special.  A few players have been changed (Rachel Griffiths for Elizabeth Marvel and Judith Light for Linda Lavin).  Direction is so spare (and movement so limited) in this evocation of the story by Joe Mantello (I don’t recall the LCT version being quite this still) that this could well be a radio play.  And all of that to say; it is all about the words, and in this hyper verbal family drama word spoken can devastate, words written can threaten, words withheld can stymy.

Our play is set primarily in 2004 — close enough to 9/11 for that to be an easy and painful political flash point for Republican late middle-aged Wyeth parents Lyman (Stacy Keach) and Polly (Stockard Channing), their more liberal children Trip (Thomas Sadowski) and Brooke (Rachel Griffiths), and Polly’s ex-writing partner sister Silda Grauman (Judith Light). Aunt Silda has now come to live with Lyman and Polly during her continued recovery.  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; Brooke feels she needs to write the words out to feel the truth of them.  And as it turns out, there are things the parents have never discussed before that come out now.

With Lavin as alcoholic Aunt Silda I found myself focusing on the old writing partner “smart girl at the M-G-M Writers Building” life of the sisters and wondering about another play that could be written with those characters.  With Light as Silda a completely inhabited, fragile, recovering, smart woman in pain is captured and I and all of my attention are focused on her and this family in the present in these moments of disclosure and revelation.  Channing’s Polly in the LCT production reminded me of Mary Tyler Moore in the 1980 film Ordinary People — all coiled acerbic protective instincts — avoiding her own emotions by striking out at others (like her daughter and the memoir she has crafted) who threaten to bring them out.  Here on the Booth stage I see a quieter more resolute and gently funny version of Polly.  I understand with more depth how this Polly and this Lyman could have stayed together as long as they have, and can feel the love that binds them and their family together, through the differences.

Each character has moments of monologue then yields the stage quietly and effectively to stay in the room (usually), to hear the words spoken by others.  In dyads and triads and full assemblages of all five characters, the stories are shouted, discussed, cried, joked about — verbally active yet physically low key.  And let us not forget, there is great resonant humor throughout this family story. These are funny, smart people who have figured out a way to live in this world through their sorrows.

A masterful, resonant, verbal, artfully crafted piece of theatre.  Again and again and again.

© Martha Wade Steketee (November 4, 2011)

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