A wonderful holiday gift has arrived on Broadway from Jon Robin Baitz, whose play Other Desert Cities has opened at the Booth Theater. After a critically-acclaimed run off-Broadway earlier in the year, Baitz’s story of a family’s secrets imploding their annual Christmas gathering has resumed performances and, if possible, is even more powerful and poignant.
We are introduced to Polly and Lyman Wyeth, who live in self-imposed luxurious exile in the desert. Lyman was a leading man in Hollywood before he entered politics, and Polly was a screenwriter prior to assuming the role of political wife. Their adult daughter and son are visiting for Christmas, but between tennis games and dinner at the country club, family warfare is engaged in.
Brooke, a leftist writer, suffers from depression and is recovering from a recent nervous breakdown. Under the anxious, watchful eyes of her parents, she practices yoga and swallows pills, but she is determined to deal with her family demons in a more aggressive way during her visit. Trip, her younger brother, is seemingly apolitical and a successful television producer, determined to navigate the currents of tension in the family living room. Their aunt Silva, a recovering alcoholic with a sharp tongue, also resides with the family, providing acerbic barbs at every opportunity.
The differences between the generations are apparent from the first scene of Other Desert Cities as the family returns from the tennis court. Polly and Lyman are impeccable in spotless tennis whites, while Brooke has donned flannel in muted tones of gray. But the real tension lurking underneath the surface is due to Brooke’s latest book, which addresses the early death of her older brother, Henry. A political rebel, he committed suicide at the age of 20, an event she blames her parents for. She brought the book to her parents hoping to receive their blessing to publish it.
It is clear that blessing is not going to come easily. The very idea of publishing the book strikes Polly with horror and Lyman refuses to read it, entreating Brooke to wait until after they have died to publish. Trip attempts to remain impartial, while Silva urges Brooke to publish, no matter the consequences. As the family pleads with each other, more secrets are unearthed and shocking revelations are made.
Directed by Joe Mantello, Other Desert Cities is performed by a stellar cast, each of whom contribute greatly to the show’s incredible success. Rachel Griffiths makes her Broadway debut as Brooke, bringing fascinating complexity to an interesting, conflicted character. On paper, Brooke could be interpreted as a selfish, spoiled child, but Griffiths’ performance steadily increases in its intensity as the show progresses, offering more insight into Brooke’s actions. Her expression of grief upon learning shocking news is truly moving and cathartic. Playing Trip, Thomas Sadoski is both entertaining and moving, providing some of the more light-hearted moments as well as offering insight into the tumultuous feelings that lie beneath his unflappable exterior. His second-act monologue listing the things his sister does not know about him, is surprisingly moving.
Stepping into the considerable shoes of Linda Lavin, who originated the role of Silda at Lincoln Center, Judith Light firmly claims the part of the alcoholic aunt for herself. Chewing scenery with her one-liners, she is a harder tougher woman than Lavin’s Silda, but in the rare moments where she lets her guard down, it is clear how fiercely Silda loves Brooke and how deeply her loyalty lies.
As the politician turned actor, Stacy Keach perfectly depicts the dapper charm and charisma required for both aspects of his character. In a restrained performance, he reveals the quiet agony Lyman has endured for so many years and the desperation he feels to keep his remaining family together.
As the matriarch of the Wyeth household, Stockard Channing gives a stunning, outstanding performance. Beautiful and brittle, Polly is determined to maintain the facade of a functional family, but Channing’s beautifully nuanced performance allows the audience to see how hard she works to keep up the facade. With nerves that are seemingly made of steel, Polly is terrified of her daughter’s depression; she does not know how to tolerate weakness. When faced with public scrutiny and humiliation this facade crumbles bit by bit. Channing’s performance is so natural and believable, it doesn’t feel like a performance at all. With her hair elegantly coiffed and highlighted and dressed in tastefully modest clothes in muted shades of pastel and flattering heels that she wears inside the house (the set of muted tones of bleach was designed by John Lee Beatty), Channing takes command of Polly and makes her a fascinating, complex and sympathetic character.
Neither Brooke nor Polly are without flaws, and choosing between the two as they battle each other proves to be futile. But Other Desert Cities doesn’t force the audience to choose a side; instead it asks us merely to listen. And when family members are this articulate and interesting, that’s not a difficult request to indulge.