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Other Desert Cities

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Elizabeth Marvel, Stacy Keach, and Thomas Sadoski.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

After the harsh chill of the last few weeks in New York City, walking into the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center for Jon Robin Baitz's new play Other Desert Cities is a body-warming treat. The ritzy yet unpretentious elegance of John Lee Beatty's Palm Springs living room set would be hot toddy enough, but to see palm trees flourishing outside the windows, crowning a sepia-toned Christmas tree with gold-wrapped presents beneath it is a reminder that hot and cold, like love and hate or tribute and disrespect, is often only a state of mind. But it's not long before the play takes on two less positive attributes of its locale, becoming unforgiving and parched.

Downpours may occasionally occur in the desert, but equivalent relief is found in neither Baitz's play nor Joe Mantello's production. In focusing on the Wyeths, a culturally and politically divided brood trying to survive the holidays together, both work strenuously hard to prove the thesis that reformation of the body, mind, or soul is possible with diligent work. But because Baitz doesn't take the chances he demands of his characters, a potentially electrifying study of political evolution and revolution within one diverse family plays like little more than an excuse for flabby finger-pointing.

Those digits are deployed with abandon, too. Brooke (Elizabeth Marvel), an acclaimed author who has recently emerged from a crippling bout of depression, a divorce, and has just completed her second book, blames her mother and father's "tough love" approach for the death of the older brother she so dearly loved. Lyman (Stacy Keach), a Republican mover-and-shaker who was once an actor and an ambassador under President Reagan, and Polly (Stockard Channing) won't take responsibility for Henry's demise; from their perspective, he was a hippy, a Vietnam War protester, and a weakling they deservedly disowned for turning his back on his family and country, and his suicide was not their fault.

Polly has also never forgiven her sister, Silda (Linda Lavin), for driving her off the popular series of motion pictures they wrote together in the 70s; but that hasn't stopped her from taking in Silda after she finishes rehab for her alcoholism. And everyone in some way resents youngest son Trip (Thomas Sadoski), a producer of a vapid reality TV series and unwilling to take anyone's side on anything: Is he wasting his talent, his name, and his connections, or is his womanizing, recreational drug use, and frivolous career merely a symptom of a more serious issue no Wyeth is quite ready to acknowledge?

All of them live under strict veils of illusion about most aspects of their lives (Polly left her Jewishness behind with her maiden name, for example), but these become impossible to maintain when Brooke reveals her latest book is not a novel but instead the history of Henry that her parents have struggled for decades to suppress. They beg Brooke to wait until they die, so that neither they nor their friends will be embarrassed; but she's already sold excerpts to The New Yorker, and her final deadline is only a week away. That leaves very little time for everyone to learn—and, most importantly, learn how to deal with—the truths they've been hiding.

Linda Lavin and Stockard Channing.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

This setup portends a paint-peeling battle of wills between the generations, which Baitz gamely attempts as he charts the catastrophic Christmas Eve that results, but this is far from a fair fight. First, neither Polly nor Lyman makes a strong case for their views (their main objections to the 1970s anti-war movement are that its proponents smelled bad, and were too involved with drugs and sex), which makes them unsteady adversaries against the fierce-minded and fiercer-spoken Brooke and Silda (who has a chip on her shoulder and a history with Brooke's manuscript). Polly's calling the Jewish Christmas repast "chink food" demonstrates the depth of Polly and Lyman's political portrayals.

Worse still is a late-show plot twist that spoils most of the play's early goodwill and conviction. I won't reveal the specifics except to say that it's a somewhat arbitrary revelation that would have resolved most of the characters' woes had it been uttered years earlier. So deflating is this turnaround that it subverts the play's apparent intention to explore how rifts like the Wyeths' can be formed or mended, refashioning the story into an off-kilter liberal morality play that offers no new insights into disagreements of this nature. It feels like a betrayal of the more nuanced work Baitz at least tried to lay out earlier on.

Mantello is acceptable, if less than vivid, at guiding the work along its prescribed course, and helping the actors get some usable mileage from the journey. Keach and Channing have it the toughest, especially when delivering rigidly defensive speeches that break in waves of monotone mockery. Until then, both performers display a handsome, detached class that grants some rounding to their characters' sharp edges; Keach goes further in that department to justify Lyman's attempts to be the family peacemaker, but Channing consistently cuts deeper, showing how Polly can cut deep when she wants to.

Brooke can as well, but Marvel strains more than she usually does in playing her conflictions—you need to believe that Brooke is really torn between losing her family and losing her grip on her memories of her brother, but all that consistently comes through is bitterness. In contrast, Sadoski so completely revels in Trip's flatness that he leaves himself nothing to grab onto when Trip must dig within himself to take control. As is her wont, Lavin kills with one-liners and sight gags (one with a cup of tea is particularly hilarious), but the script gives her few chances to let Silda do much more than bray herself across the finish line in criticizing her sister and building up Brooke.

Lavin's dilemma underscores the play's chief failing: It could be a much stronger look at the intersection of Hollywood, Washington D.C., and a fractured family unit if it didn't take the easy way out. Baitz demonstrates how the Wyeths disintegrate because they preferred cowardly choices when braver but more difficult options were available. But their same problem also afflicts Other Desert Cities, which in aiming for the clarity of glass without honest heat ends up as grainy and irritating as sand.

Other Desert Cities
Through February 27
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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