There are a few plays within Jon Robin Baitz’s drama “Other Desert Cities,” which reopened on Broadway last night, after a successful run earlier this year at Lincoln Center.
The show starts off as a corrosive dark comedy about a tumultuous Christmas reunion pitting conservative parents against their liberal offspring.
But then Baitz reveals a series of game-changers.
The hosting elders, Polly and Lyman Wyeth (Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach, both at the top of their game), are old-school California Republicans. They’ve segued from Hollywood careers to a posh Palm Springs retirement filled with fund-raisers and country-club brunches.
Visiting for the holidays are their children: Trip (Thomas Sadoski), a laidback producer of low-brow reality TV, and Brooke (Rachel Griffiths), a writer who’s just emerging from debilitating depression. They don’t look quite right in their parents’ chic, airy living room -- John Lee Beatty’s set is appropriately sterile and sleek.
A Sag Harbor progressive with a rich woman’s blond highlights, Brooke derides her parents’ blue-blazer conservatism. And that’s nothing compared to her fury at the way they drove their oldest child, Henry, to drugs, extremism and suicide years ago. At least that’s how she sees it.
Watching from the sidelines, Trip and Silda (Judith Light), Polly’s recovering-alcoholic sister, referee the verbal volleys -- which are particularly fast and furious between mother and daughter.
“You are never going to meet anyone if you continue to dress like a refugee from a library in Kabul,” Polly sniffs.
This part is a very good, if conventional, family dramedy, enlivened by Joe Mantello’s fluid direction and superb acting. Griffiths, in her Broadway debut, has a mellower presence than Elizabeth Marvel, who created the role months ago. You can really see her Brooke as the product of Lyman and Polly’s upbringing: obliviously entitled, with a crusader’s self-righteousness.
Griffiths doesn’t try to charm the audience by making Brooke sympathetic -- which is key when the family bickering turns out to have been mere warning shots before a major explosion. And the detonator is Brooke’s upcoming tell-all memoir about Henry.
Suddenly, the play opens up. Now we’re dealing with an artist’s responsibilities and duties, with what makes up the truth, with the notion of appropriation. Predictably, a sunny character reveals a hidden malaise; a lot more interesting is that others reveal selfless generosity.
This is rich territory -- the fraught relationship between Polly and Silda alone is worth a spinoff -- but Baitz doesn’t clobber us with messages or psychobabble. He just makes spending time with these messed-up, complicated people a genuine pleasure.
All family reunions should be this satisfying. Having spent months apart and suffered losses that might have leveled a less resilient clan, the Wyeths of “Other Desert Cities” have reassembled on Broadway at the Booth Theater, and absence and adversity (as they’re supposed to but so seldom do) have made them closer than ever. This means they have even more power to nurture, delight and wound one another and, not incidentally, move to tears anyone who visits them.
There was much rejoicing when this Jon Robin Baitz play had its premiere Off Broadway at Lincoln Center in January. It was not only the most thoroughly integrated and sustained work from Mr. Baitz, who had been regarded as a promising wunderkind for long past his sell-by date. This witty, deeply enjoyable family drama also had a five-member cast of top-flight virtuosos. Expectations were that the show would beat a fast path to Broadway with its marvelous cast intact.
But the wheels of New York show business grind slow. And by the time little details like a theater to appear in had been worked out for a transfer, the production had lost its flashiest stars, Elizabeth Marvel and Linda Lavin. And there were worries the show might also have lost its momentum and the accumulated interest on all that buzz from last season.
Yet “Cities,” directed with a masterly combination of shadow and shimmer by Joe Mantello, emerges as stronger, more sincere and more credible in its Broadway reincarnation. There were whispers last winter (though not from me) that as pleasurable as “Cities” was, it had more sparkle than substance, and that the members of the affluent, fractious family it portrayed didn’t seem to share the same performance styles, let alone the same blood.
This new version should silence those objections. With Rachel Griffiths and Judith Light assuming the roles originally played by Ms. Marvel and Ms. Lavin — and Stacy Keach, Thomas Sadoski and a peerless Stockard Channing having only grown in theirs — “Cities” is now less of a showoff than it was, and its ensemble more of a piece. It has, in other words, settled comfortably into its own skin, which makes its characters’ discomfort all the more palpable.
High anxiety, of that virulent strain that erupts at Christmas when grown children visit their parents, is what fuels “Cities,” which is set in the desert-toned, tastelessly tasteful digs of Lyman and Polly Wyeth (Mr. Keach and Ms. Channing) in Palm Springs, Calif., in 2004. (John Lee Beatty designed the spot-on set.)
Lyman, a former movie star and former United States ambassador (during the presidency of a kindred spirit, Ronald Reagan), and Polly (who shares the behind-the-velvet-curtains powerfulness of Nancy Reagan) have chosen to live here in luxurious exile. There are aspects of their past they would rather not be reminded of, though it is hard to forget them with Silda Grauman (Ms. Light), Polly’s sharp-tongued sister, in residence.
And now, as a special holiday treat, here comes Brooke (Ms. Griffiths), the Wyeths’ daughter, a depressive writer bearing the manuscript of a memoir about what Mom and Dad don’t want to remember. Though their youngest child, Trip (Mr. Sadoski), a television producer, is present, it’s their absent son — a Weather Underground-style political revolutionary who killed himself decades earlier — who looms largest at this gathering.
Mr. Baitz has always specialized in demon parents (“The Substance of Fire,” “A Fair Country,”), and at first it appears that Lyman and Polly are but the latest additions to that gallery. But Mr. Baitz is looking deeper and more clearly into Mom and Dad than he did before. He’s not just giving the devils their due; he’s also suggesting that they may not be all that satanic.
One of the virtues of “Cities” on Broadway is that it lets Polly and Lyman take center stage in a way they couldn’t before. That’s because Ms. Marvel and Ms. Lavin were giving intense star performances that hijacked your attention. Ms. Marvel’s Brooke was a kamikaze daughter, forever on the attack and on the verge of explosion. As Silda, a wisecracking alcoholic, Ms. Lavin was a meticulously carved font of salty wisdom, a lovable truth teller even when her character was being dishonest.
Ms. Light dares to be less than lovable. A deteriorating coat hanger for David Zinn’s bargain-rack look-at-me costumes, her Silda is a burnt-out case, scrawny, bitter and ill. When Polly says, “Families get terrorized by their weakest member,” you look at Ms. Light and know exactly what she means.
As portrayed by Ms. Griffiths (“Six Feet Under”) in a beautifully modulated Broadway debut, Brooke is more conspicuously fragile now. Her careful, straight-back posture is that of a reed that might snap if it bends. Her resistance to her parents’ charm is obviously hard won. And with her thorned passivity, she’s a walking case of emotional blackmail.
She is also quite clearly Daddy’s girl. And Mr. Keach, in a layered performance that gives full resonance to the idea of an actor-politician, makes you appreciate why even a lefty daughter would continue to adore this arch-Republican father, with his gentrified John Wayne facade and crumbling core. Trip, on the other hand, is Polly’s boy. And in his scenes with Ms. Channing, the first-rate Mr. Sadoski conveys the flirtatious, conspiratorial ease that comes with being the youngest in a family of dynamos. He’s closer, on an obvious level, to his parents than Brooke is. But he has also achieved at least a modicum of an outsider’s distance.
Ms. Channing, for the record, is giving her best performance since she appeared in John Guare’s 1990 play, “Six Degrees of Separation,” and quite possibly the performance of her career. Part of a Hollywood scriptwriting team with Silda before she became a political wife, Polly traffics in a bright, aggressive repartee that would make her a lively hostess and a formidable enemy.
As might be expected, Ms. Channing delivers antagonistic quips (some of them real jewels) in high style. But she also affectingly suggests the dogged willpower that sustaining this sleek, manufactured surface requires. Even her determined walk is that of someone who’s afraid she might collapse if she relaxes. No wonder Polly is scared by Brooke’s depression. She knows how darkness swallows people who let down their guards.
This actress is so good that you don’t even realize how good she is while you’re watching her. The same might be said of Mr. Baitz’s play. Built with gleaming dialogue, tantalizing hints of a dangerous mystery and a structural care that brings to mind the heyday of Lillian Hellman, “Cities” has the appeal of a Broadway hit from another age.
Seeing it with this cast, though, I felt new subtleties (and less of a sense of formula) in the family dynamics. The Wyeths’ competitive hyper-articulateness seems to come more naturally to them now. Always balanced on a razor’s edge of affection and aggression, this studied cleverness is what allows them to continue to communicate with one another.
But what a reservoir of anguish lies beneath the dazzle. When all that hurt comes tumbling out, we’ve been artfully prepared for it. But even if you’ve seen the play before and know its secrets, you still feel the full pain and strange comfort of what Brooke calls “the indentured servitude of having a family.”
In Jon Robin Baitz's marvelous new play, Other Desert Cities, Stacy Keach and Stockard Channing play a retired couple with serious credentials both in old-school Hollywood and old-guard Republican circles.
Keach's Lyman Wyeth was a film idol before rising through the GOP ranks to become ambassador and party chairman. His wife, Polly, a former screenwriter, is a friend and protégée of Nancy Reagan. We meet the Wyeths in 2004, in the thick of the Iraq War; their grown children, Brooke and Trip, are visiting for Christmas, and suffice to say they don't share all their parents' professed political views.
But Cities, which opened Thursday at the Booth Theatre, is not a polemic. Baitz could have scored easy points pitting the younger Wyeths, both smart and articulate, against a square, stodgy mom and dad. Instead, he has crafted an assortment of people who repeatedly defy any urge to pigeonhole or judge them — who, rather, challenge the audience to see their shared humanity in all its funny, maddening, moving variety.
That humanity seems even richer, and more real, in this production than it did when Cities premiered off-Broadway last year. One reason might be new cast member Rachel Griffiths, who delivers a gorgeously natural performance as Brooke, a once-promising novelist recovering from depression.
Brooke is about to publish a new book, a memoir focusing on a tragedy that has haunted the family for years. News of this cathartic breakthrough doesn't sit well with her scrupulously private parents, who have expended no small amount of time and money trying to restore their daughter's emotional health. The elegant, exacting Polly, whose alpha-female iciness is a source of both humor and terror, is especially blunt in expressing her displeasure.
There are things that Brooke doesn't know about her mother's own struggles, though — or, indeed, about the ordeal traced in her memoir. There's a crucial revelation at the end of the play, one that might seem contrived had Baitz not laid out, so credibly and with such compassion, the complex needs and survival strategies of his very different characters.
The expert cast, under Joe Mantello's thoughtful direction, mines the resulting conflicts for all their hilarity and poignance. After Brooke pours her heart out defending her book, Thomas Sadoski's witty Trip offers an equally passionate (and entertaining) summation of the selfishness in her suffering and healing. And when Channing's pitch-perfect Polly clashes with her sister — a recovering alcoholic, played by Judith Light, who suggests what Brooke might become if she fully disappeared up her own navel — neither is victorious or vanquished.
The triumph of Cities is that even as we see the solipsism and despair among these family members, their capacity for deceiving themselves and one another, we find hope in their ability to communicate, however grudgingly or fitfully.
At a time when so much of our cultural and political discourse aims at preaching to the choir or attacking the opposition, that's no small accomplishment.
Helmer Joe Mantello did a savvy job of recasting "Other Desert Cities" for its Broadway transfer. When the show preemed at Lincoln Center earlier this year, it wasn't clear that Jon Robin Baitz's tightly wrapped family drama about a patrician clan of Old Guard California Republicans even had a leading character. That ensemble vibe survives in this production, but with the magnetic Rachel Griffiths ("Six Feet Under") now taking the lead in the part of the renegade daughter from New York, it's easier to overlook the artifices of the plot and surrender to the drama.
A stalwart Stacy Keach and the invincible Stockard Channing reprise their respective roles as Lyman Wyeth, a former movie star who went on to become a powerful GOP bigwig, and his wife, Polly, as socially charming and politically calculating as her dear friend Nancy Reagan.
Thomas Sadoski also makes a welcome return as their son, Trip, a good-natured producer of trashy reality-TV shows and the kind of attentive son who would spend Christmas Eve with his parents. (The white-and-gold artificial Christmas tree in the living room is set designer John Lee Beatty's witty way of capturing the arid holiday spirit in Palm Springs, circa 2004.)
In the context of this bleached-out desert setting, it falls on the characters to supply all the color. In the original production, Linda Lavin made an especially vibrant character of Silda Grauman, Polly's free-thinking, hard-living alcoholic sister, fresh out of rehab and come to live with her sister and brother-in-law. That role, which opened up when Lavin went into Nicky Silvers' new play "The Lyons," went to Judith Light.
Light (who played another straight-shooter in "Lombardi") makes sharp work here of Silda's outspoken views on politics, religion and her sister's pretensions. But because she isn't as vivid as her predecessor, the thesp makes it easier for Griffiths to claim centerstage as Brooke Wyeth, the prodigal daughter who arrives with the manuscript of a memoir that accuses her parents of driving their older son to suicide.
Newly divorced and recovering from a breakdown that had her hospitalized for years, Brooke isn't the most stable person in the world. Elizabeth Marvel's provocative perf came from that vulnerable state of mental instability, making Brooke's volatile character seem dangerous. In Griffiths' deeply compassionate perf, she comes across as more rational and a lot healthier: more thoughtful than brooding, intellectually curious rather than paranoid.
Neither of these insightful performances, however, can solve the improbabilities of the melodramatic plot, which hangs on a family secret long buried and implausibly never discussed. And while Baitz ("The Substance of Fire") gives his articulate characters the wit and intelligence to go to battle on any number of ideological issues that divide them, he studiously avoids bringing up anything as lively as politics.
Jon Robin Baitz's "Other Desert Cities," which had a very successful run at Lincoln Center Theater last winter, has now transferred to Broadway, where it will surely do at least as well—and deservedly so. Though not without flaw, Mr. Baitz's latest play, a group portrait of a Reaganesque show-business family whose members are keeping secrets from one another, is for the most part both soundly made and emotionally persuasive, and Stockard Channing, Rachel Griffiths, Stacy Keach, Judith Light and Thomas Sadoski are as good a cast as anyone could hope for.
The high quality of "Other Desert Cities" may come as a surprise to those who saw Mr. Baitz's "Chinese Friends," a glib, hysterical dystopian fantasy about politics in postmodern America that couldn't have been much dumber. "Other Desert Cities" is not without its own moments of slickness, both political (the Republicanism-as-pathology thread gets old fast) and theatrical (too much of the first act feels like one of Neil Simon's joke-encrusted "serious" plays). But the second act, in which Mr. Baitz's characters face up at last to the destructive consequences of their well-meant deceptions, packs a roundhouse punch, one that hits so hard that you'll be more than willing to forgive the failings of what came before it.
Joe Mantello's staging is effective, though it would have been interesting to see the first act directed more for truth than for easy laughs. John Lee Beatty's set is a spectacular evocation of the Palm Springs school of big-ticket midcentury modernism. Ms. Griffiths is formidably persuasive as Brooke, a neurotic, self-righteous writer who is determined to tell the world the truth about her dysfunctional family no matter who gets hurt along the way. Everyone in "Other Desert Cities" is outstanding, but she's the one you'll watch.
We've all heard this scenario before: Family members gather for a fraught holiday reunion in which embarrassing family secrets – lubricated by booze and resentment – tumble out.
But Jon Robin Baitz has taken that cliche and somehow made it vibrant in "Other Desert Cities," which had its world debut last year at Lincoln Center Theater and has now made the jump to Broadway. It opened Thursday at the Booth Theatre.
The script crackles with life and so do the performances. Three of the five original cast members (Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach and Thomas Sadoski) return and two newcomers (Rachel Griffiths and Judith Light) more than pull their weight, all under the direction of Joe Mantello, who has kept the humor and intensity flowing despite the cast changes.
It is set on Christmas Eve 2004 at the luxurious Palm Springs home of two Old Guard Republicans – Lyman Wyeth, a movie star-turned-diplomat played tenderly by Keach, and his wife, the perfectly coifed Polly (Stockard), a wannabe WASP who favors plenty of chunky gold jewelry and is dry as vermouth.
Into their well-appointed living room come their lefty relatives: their son Trip (Sadoski) a trashy TV producer; their daughter Brooke (Griffiths), an author who has battled depression and writer's block; and Polly's sister Silda (Light), an acid-tongued recovering alcoholic who burns with resentment.
"It's like King Tut's tomb," Silda quips about Palm Springs. "The whole town is filled with mummies with tans."
A morning of tennis and mild, good-natured insults soon descends into something very uncomfortable when Brooke reveals that her new book is about her long-dead brother, a drug-addled, anti-war activist who committed suicide after a bomb he helped plant accidentally killed someone.
Brooke's book accuses her parents of being uncaring monsters who drove their son to murder. It threatens to dig up the family's dark past and even indicts the entire conservative movement. Christmas cheer is ruined, replaced by what Trip always feared would be "stiff upper-lipped thermonuclear family war."
After setting up this premise – one that could easily become a cartoonish clash between strident left and uptight right – Baitz thankfully swerves his work into subtle territory. Neither side turns out to be correct – or even what they appear to be.
Channing is at her droll best here, shooting off one-liners ("It's all or nothing with your generation," she tells her son. "Either vegans or meth addicts or both at the same time"), but also making clear that her love is not unconditional. When Polly gets angry, her long-suppressed Texas accent emerges, undermining her attempt to be Pat Buckley and revealing one more family secret.
Keach's father is cuddly and cute – he tries to mooch cigarettes from his kids and wants to be the peacemaker – but soon reaches his breaking point, a rage that is palpable. Light, who takes over a role originated by Linda Lavin, shows off her ability to milk the laughs and to find the passionate leftist warhorse within Silda.
Sadoski has become even better in a role that might initially be easy to overlook. Trip is torn between competing factions, but Sadoski won't let him be bullied. Griffiths, who was on the TV series "Six Feet Under" and takes over the role from Elizabeth Marvel, makes her Broadway debut and seems to relish it: She performs yoga on stage, absentmindedly makes a nuisance of herself while nervously waiting for her parents to read her book and is prone to ill-advised bouts of tearful rage.
Despite a cast that runs like an Italian sports car, the real star is the script. Baitz's exploration of reinvention and the value of art wouldn't be nearly as much fun without his artful dialogue. "You think being a depressive makes you special?" Trip asks his sister at one point. "Guess what, being depressed makes you banal."
Costumes by David Zinn keep the theme, with Channing in white trousers and expensive-looking jackets, and Keach in a natty blazer and a sensible tie. Even when playing tennis, the couple wears bright, spotless athletic attire. Their kids, on the other hand, are dressed casual in clothes they are a little too old to be wearing.
The single set by John Lee Beatty – some love seats, a curved Desert Southwest stone wall, a chilly but elegant Christmas tree and one of those 1970s-style Scandinavian freestanding fireplaces – is perfect California chic. Everything is in a tasteful, expensive cream. For Broadway, Beatty has added a wall of glass that distorts the actors' reflections and the hint of a pool outside that leaves reflected water dancing on a ceiling.
By the way, the title of the book that Brooke has brought home to torture her parents is "Love & Mercy" – two things the Wyeth family will be learning a great deal about on this Christmas.