ACT Theatre’s terrific airing of “Other Desert Cities,” a recent Broadway drama by Jon Robin Baitz, begins with a volley of ultra-clever repartee lobbed between the tony Palm Springs couple Polly and Lyman Wyeth (the splendid Pamela Reed and Kevin Tighe) and their adult children, Brooke and Trip (the also-first-rate Marya Sea Kaminski and Aaron Blakely).
But don’t let Baitz deceive you into thinking this is a Noël Coward cocktail comedy, transported to the Wyeths’ swanky SoCal living room. (It’s designed by Robert Dahlstrom, a master of posh parlors.)
Where there is joke, there is smoke. And the Wyeths’ Christmas Eve zingers get sharper, piercing enough to draw blood. There’s a war going on here, a long and emotionally bruising one. And scathing quips are this clan’s weapon of choice.
The expertly crafted “Other Desert Cities” is staged elegantly and incisively by Victor Pappas. And it’s one of the finest plays from an astute dissector of familial angst on stage (“The Substance of Fire”), and TV (“Brothers and Sisters,” a series Baitz created).
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What distinguishes Baitz’s approach to the genre of well-made domestic drama is his belief that family dynamics are as political as they are personal.
Reed’s witty, brittle, whiskey-voiced Polly, a former screenwriter, and Tighe’s gentler actor-turned-politico Lyman are old-guard, conservative Republicans. They pal around with the GOP A-list, including Ronnie and Nancy (Reagan). They back the escalating Iraq war (the play is set in 2004), and believe smug leftists and a self-entitled Me Generation have ruined America.
Brooke, a New York writer, is long estranged from her parents’ lifestyle and worldview. Recovered from a major spell of suicidal depression, she returns home on a mission: to show her parents the manuscript of her new memoir.
How, her laid-back brother Trip asks, can she expect their parents’ blessing for portraying them as deluded, reactionary fossils? And, worse, making them responsible for the suicide of another Wyeth son — who was implicated in a radical 1970s bombing?
The dramatic stakes here may rest too heavily on how the parents’ reactions (shock, rage, threats) will affect the book’s publication. And even in Kaminski’s layered portrayal, it’s hard to swallow Brooke’s naiveté about this, and other matters.
As the engrossing Act 1 ends, you may think you know who these people are (including Polly’s sardonic, alcoholic sister Silda, smartly played by Lori Larsen). But those notions get rattled by a big, payoff Act 2 revelation — one that forces you to reconsider everything.
Is Reed’s tart, domineering Polly (perfectly put together in Frances Kenny’s classy threads) just an iron lady and bullying mom? Is Tighe’s weary Lyman a sweet but out- of-touch right-wing relic?
Are Kaminski’s fierce yet still-fragile Brooke, and Larsen’s bitterly blunt Silda, really the family’s brave truth-tellers?
One of the rewards of “Other Desert Cities” is how the characters (and these adroit, attuned actors) surprise you. It also shows how hard it is to bridge a generation gap as vast as the Grand Canyon. And how tightly the familial and political are enmeshed.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org