The hottest ticket on Broadway right now is Other Desert Cities, a family/political drama by playwright Jon Robin Baitz, who my be best known for creating the television drama Brothers & Sisters. Like that show’s early days, Other Desert Cities explores big political issues by filtering them through a family’s internal rifts, recriminations, and love for one another.
In this case, the play focuses primarily on the Wyeth family’s Christmas gathering in Palm Springs, California, where the elder Wyeths, Polly and Lyman, played by Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach, live. Polly and Lyman are Old Guard Republicans who remain active in a certain kind of Republican circle. Lyman was a former actor, much like Reagan, and was appointed an ambassador during his administration. Polly is friends with Nancy.
Polly and Lyman have taken in Polly’s sister, Silda, played by Judith Light, who has had a drug problem. Now out of rehab with no place to go, she resents living with her sister in part due to their former success as a screenwriting partnership, which broke up with Polly’s turn to Republican conservatism. As Silda constantly reminds her, Polly is a Jew who plays the part of a transplanted-Texas WASP.
Rounding out the family gathering are the Wyeth “children,” both of whom are adults. Rachel Griffiths plays Brooke, an emotionally delicate writer who suffered from a six-year emotional breakdown after the publication of her first novel but who now insists that she knows how to manage her depression. Trip Wyeth, played by Matthew Risch, who will soon be replaced by Justin Kirk, is a producer on a cheesy Judge Judy type of television show in which celebrities serve on a jury and decide cases.
The plot centers around Brooke’s new book, a memoir detailing her perspective on the death of the Wyeth’s other, older son Henry, who had joined a cult that blew up an army recruiting station, killing a janitor. Guilt stricken by this turn of events, Henry apparently jumped overboard off a ferry and drowned himself 30 years ago. Brooke’s memoir dredges up the past, reopening all of the family’s old wounds. Here’s a clip of the play, a scene in which Brooke gives her parents copies of her book:
Overall, this play was interesting and enjoyable, and the performances are great. Griffiths, Channing, Light, and Keach all deserve Tony nominations. But PJ and I were both confused by the plot’s details. I couldn’t keep straight the sequence of events — when did Henry kill himself, when did Lyman become an ambassador, and how old was everybody when each of these events happened. Presumably the former was in 1974(ish), since the play is set in 2004. But I kept getting confused in the dialogue; I needed more reminders of how everything was connected.
I’m willing to assume that this is my fault for not keeping up, but it did affect my enjoyment of the play nevertheless. I liked it, but I wasn’t as wowed by it as others seem to be. It felt more like Sturm und Drang over actual substance. I’m sure it will win the Tony for Best New Play, however. The real excitement will be whether Griffiths or Channing will win Best Actress in a Play!