Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 3, 2011
Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz. Directed by Joe Mantello. Sets by John Lee Beatty. Costumes by David Zinn. Lighting by Kenneth Posner. Sound by Jill BC DuBoff. Original music by Justin Ellington. Cast: Stockard Channing, Rachel Griffiths, Stacy Keach, Judith Light, Thomas Sadoski.
There's nothing wrong with strong politics, of course. Where would American theatre — or theatre at all? — be without them? But when they're used as a one-dimension bludgeoning club, without being paired with either a well-defined message, an intense theatricality, or preferably both, onstage they fail to register as strongly as they do with writers who are more interested in telling stories than mounting hit pieces. The likes of Tony Kushner and Clifford Odets in this country or Bertolt Brecht on the opposite side of the Atlantic have demonstrated that a political play without an artistic foundation is a harangue. And a harangue is exactly what Baitz has written.
What stings most from the audience, however, is that it's neither a useful nor an inventive one, and it could easily be. The increasingly fractured nature of discourse in this country, dividing groups large and small into sweeping labeled categories like "left and right," "blue and red," and now "Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party" demands a probing, sensitive treatment, and Baitz sets himself up to do that. The Wyeth family is presented as a house divided: Mom Polly (Stockard Channing) and dad Lyman (Stacy Keach) are conservatives, daughter Brooke (Rachel Griffiths) and Polly's sister Silda (Judith Light) are liberals, and son Trip (Thomas Sadoski) waffles around the middle. In 2004, with the Middle East destabilizing, what better time to examine how and why the American human infrastructure is breaking down at is most basic level?
Instead, Other Desert Cities contents itself with simplistic, simple-minded portrayals of Polly and Lyman: She's a former screenwriter (she and Silda collaborated on a series of teen movies a few decades back), Texan, and Jew who refers to her Christmas repast as "chink food"; he's a former actor (specializing in death scenes), GOP head, and ambassador under Reagan who decried the 1960s-70s antiwar movement because its hippy proponents smelled bad and cared only about drugs and sex. It's that attitude, in fact, that led their eldest son, Henry, to his suicide.
The imbalance continues with the hopelessly sentimentalized and sympathetic Brooke, a depressive who never recovered from her brother's loss and has now written her second book about his life and death at the hands of her parents. The copy for a New Yorker excerpt of it is due in a week, so the Christmas–New Year holidays that have brought the Wyeths together in Polly and Lyman's elaborate and elegant manse (the calculated design of John Lee Beatty) becomes both a literal and figurative deadline for everyone to work out their troubles.
This isn't credible commentary and it certainly isn't drama, but it should be insulting to theatregoers of all voting habits, who for their ticket money deserve better than to be either coddled or scolded in this bald, grating, and boring a way. There are laughs scattered throughout, though aside from Silda's well-rendered quips, barbs, and attempts to cope with life post-rehab, they're inconsistent in their impact. But this never feels like a play that cares about entertaining first and foremost, so it registers as the last and least component of this particular evening.
All this said, the Broadway production is marginally more satisfying than the Off-Broadway one, because director Joe Mantello and his company have lightened up a lot. Gone now are most of the acidic, angry edges that previous shaped the dialogue into one big spoken weapon of mass destruction, and that's helped make the inherent mean-spiritedness of the proceedings go down more pleasantly than once they did.
Channing has warmed herself up considerably and shed the holier-than-thou mantle that made her character so intolerable uptown; she now comes across as a well-meaning and thoughtful bigot, rather than merely a pencil-traced caricature. More than the original Brooke, Elizabeth Marvel, Griffiths depicts Brooke's dueling opinions as equally powerful and persuasive, letting her prevailing question about the best way to proceed with her book be as crucial a central issue as it can be. Light's vocal approach gives Silda a more underhanded comic vibe and potent immediacy than Linda Lavin's did at Lincoln Center, which works for this largely subsidiary role.
Keach is a bit of a two-by-four by Lyman, perhaps buying too much into the character's now-faded matinee-idol proclivities, though he cuts a charming paternal figure. Sadoski's performance as passionless sex addict Trip remains rudderless and uncommitted, a more facile second-generation photocopy of his sparkling star turn as the insensitive boyfriend in Neil LaBute's reasons to be pretty in 2009. Beatty's set, David Zinn's Colorado Desert-chic costumes, and Kenneth Posner's sun-drenched lighting likewise seem largely unchanged, though the terrible amplification makes many of the actors sound like overloud, malfunctioning robots.
Then again, has Baitz programmed them any differently? With every character parroting blasé talking points rather than living vibrant lives that inspire them to say and do worthwhile things, their voices might as well sound as blatantly artificial as the words they're speaking. It is, after all, at least a kind of synthesis between how things operate onstage and how they operate in the world. Some sense of this in any other way, whether political, personal, or theatrical, would greatly help the parched and desolate Other Desert Cities.