(“Other Desert Cities” by Jon Robin Baitz plays at New Conservatory Theatre Center, through April 5, 2015.)
Jon Robin Baitz won an Outer Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer nomination for Best New Play in 2011 for “Other Desert Cities,” the story of the Wyeth family of Palm Springs, at war with itself on Christmas Eve, 2004. We see the older ultra-conservative Hollywood couple, trying to work their will on their liberal and passionate grown-up son and daughter, visiting for the holiday. The story unfolds slowly, with each parent and child revealing more mysteries and secrets. Daughter Brooke Wyeth (Melissa Keith) has returned after six years, ready to unlock the secret of her “revolutionary” brother, Henry, who committed suicide, many years ago. She has been suffering ever since, and now has written a memoir about the family’s tragedy. But the older generation, Lyman Wyeth (Geoff Colton) and wife Polly Wyeth (Michaela Greely) are not ready for such public revelations.
The Wyeth family embodies the ideological gap between Reaganaut Right Wingers, living in blissful Palm Springs, and their children from L.A. and Long Island. Baitz sets his play in Polly and Lyman’s elegant ranch house, at the height of G.W. Bush’s folly in Iraq. Polly and Lyman amusingly hold the political line against their kids, in a war at home to echo the war abroad. Here’s the question I want to ask: Could the older Wyeths have saved their children instead of themselves? You will have to decide. The Wyeths only ask “Why?” And sometimes they Lie. And sometimes they are Pollyanna.
From the start, Lyman and Polly, stylish, posh, “friends of Nancy,” use all their paternal and maternal wiles to manipulate their wayward and suffering offspring. Brooke is a depressed and divorced writer, while Trip (Paul Collins) has landed, comically, on his feet as a TV producer of a legal reality show. Love in this elegant and powerful family is expressed in irony and wit, jokes and challenges. Polly, an acerbic tiger-Mom, played with gusto by Ms. Greeley, uses her formidable powers to hold Brooke in her place, as they all orbit around Polly, a Joan Crawford mom, for sure.
They have bet their lives on a secret about their “revolutionary” lost son, which they cannot reveal. They have saved themselves, but what about their children? Geoff Colton’s Lyman Wyeth bravely and calmly tries to talk sense to his beloved daughter, but they have come to stand for opposed ways of life. Whose way makes any sense? Who can be saved from this bitter and all-consuming war? Maybe Baitz’s play takes on too many themes or is over-plotted, but his ambition is admirable. We’re not sure if all the parts fit together, precisely, but it’s a wild ride. It’s not easy to sympathize with these parents, we have to admit.
The road sign says “Other Desert Cities,” pointing to the cities that lie beyond the haven of Palm Springs. Those “other” cities do not matter to the comically rendered Hollywood elite who congregate in their desert oasis. Those of us who live in the “other desert cities” look on in wonder at their crisp show-biz wit. The family reunion, full of brilliant barbs and jokes, crumbles hilariously. Amidst lots of drinking and alcoholism, pills and rehabs the schism deepens, the war flares on all fronts. It’s almost like the Titanic going down, again.
Brilliant and fashionable, vain and in charge, Lyman and Polly want to remain safe and comfy in their isolated retreat, hoarding their secrets and their status. They are as isolated as a solitary figure in an Andrew Wyeth painting of bleak fields. It may be that Baitz chose the name Wyeth to clue us into the alienated world of this family. You will want to be there for the epic fireworks, the startling arias that self-consciously display family miscalculations and misunderstandings.
Each generation reflects terrible truths about self-preservation, self-love, social standing, and artistic expression in a hot time and place. Director Arturo Catricala makes sure we have high emotional stakes in this well-crafted play. Baitz’s second act builds up a tremendous speed and surprises us with pitched confrontations. Catricala has beautifully directed, and he sensitively lets his fine actors explore this material.
Yes, it’s both soap-opera and grand opera, political battle and family dynamic, all specialities of Baitz, who knows how to paint past and present, right and left, parents and children. When you see Baitz’s tangled web unfold at NCTC, you will ask yourself if these parents could have relented, could have been more loving. Or, are all generations limited to a partial, partisan picture of their isolated, fleeting world?
The blockbuster second act brings them together and tears them apart—just like the Iraq War that twists the future into strange shapes, at great cost to us all. The Wyeths embody the new elitism that comes with other people’s wars. By the end, we are completely invested in the family comedy and drama. We are living over-the-top, now. We are struggling with the fall-out from their unfinished personal and political debate. Put on your seat belts, folks. You are in for a smart, funny, and explosive ride with two smartly opposed generations of Wyeths.
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“Other Desert Cities” by Jon Robin Baitz, presented by New Conservatory Theatre Center. Director: Arturo Catricala. Scenic Design: Kuo-Hao Lo. Costumes: Keri Fitch. Lighting: Christian V. Mejia. Props: Amy Crumpacker. Stage Manager: Casey Fern.
Trip Wyeth: Paul Collins. Lyman Wyeth: Geoffrey Colton. Polly Wyeth: Michaela Greeley. Brooke Wyeth: Melissa Keith. Silda Grauman: Cheryl Smith.
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