Arena Stage Other Desert CitiesBy Bob Ashby • May 4th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Arena Stage: (Info) (Web)
Arena Stage-Fichandler Theatre, Washington DC
Through May 26th
2:20, with one intermission
$40-$90 (Plus Fees)
Reviewed May 2nd, 2013
In this era of recession, unemployment, and ever-increasing inequality, is it theatrically relevant to build a play around the secrets, woes, and family dysfunctions of the highly affluent? In writing Other Desert Cities, Jon Robin Baitz certainly must have thought so. His play, now at Arena Stage, depicts the splintering of the wealthy, witty, brittle Wyeth family in their Palm Springs living room over a distinctly un-merry Christmas holiday.
A word about that living room: Kate Edmunds’ set involves a neutral-colored carpet, with neutral-colored furniture, with a stone bar festooned with a variety of liquor bottles, a Scandinavian-modern buffet, and a central fire pit with a gas-powered flame. It is the kind of living room that could fit only in a McMansion. It is too big to be homey, the kind of space in which family members can maintain physical, as well as emotional, distance from one another. Director Kyle Donnelly makes good use of this aspect of the set by staging one character across the set from others at times, underlining the separation between them. Nancy Schertler’s lighting design is also often in relatively neutral colors, with sometimes a color blue tint, in keeping with the emotional tone of the setting.
While the play takes place mostly in 2004, the living room’s decor is very much of the 1970s, consistent with the sensibility of its owners, Polly and Lyman Wyeth, whose heyday was the 1970s and 80s.
In that heyday, Polly and Lyman were part of the Reagans’ circle, on a first-name basis with Ronnie and Nancy. Lyman (Larry Bryggman), himself a former movie actor (his major talent was apparently doing prolonged death scenes, reminiscent of Mortimer, “the man who dies” in The Fantasticks), became an ambassador during the Reagan Administration. With a craggy, gracious exterior, and an unrelenting hatred for what he remembers as the drug- and sex-crazed, long-haired era of the 1960s and 70s, he values loyalty above all. Polly (Helen Carey, the excellent Mary Tyrone in Arena’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night last season) is smart, demanding, casually bigoted, and tough — the only person who ever made Nancy Reagan back down, her husband comments. She is ever ready with a zinger that can amuse or wound, and Baitz supplies her and others with zingers aplenty, especially during the quite funny first act. In a more reflective moment, she notes that her real talent is for despair. The other three characters all say that she is far too hard on her talented, but emotionally troubled, daughter, Brooke (Emily Donahoe).
Brooke is visiting from her home in New York, where she has completed her new book. Not exactly a starving artist (she lives in Sag Harbor), she is on antidepressants following a lengthy stay in a mental hospital. Her manuscript — a memoir of her growing up — becomes the play’s main source of conflict, since it focuses on an extremely painful episode, the apparent suicide of her beloved older brother, Henry, following Henry’s involvement in a botched bombing during the anti-Vietnam War protests. (Though never referenced, the bombing mentioned in the play may have been suggested by the bombing, by antiwar protesters, of the Army Mathematics Research Center at the University of Wisconsin in 1970. While apparently intended only to destroy property, the blast killed a researcher who was working late at night. Three of the four perpetrators served prison sentences for their actions.) The memoir harshly indicts her parents for failing Henry, and they are appalled, to the point where Polly threatens to break ties with Brooke if the publication proceeds. Not only would the memoir make public private sorrow and guilt, it would break the code of loyalty and reticence that the older Wyeths live by.
As played by Donahoe, Brooke is a very unsettled, self-absorbed woman, no longer young (by 2004, it appears from evidence in the script that Brooke would probably be in her early 40s), dependent and rebellious, wanting to stand up to her powerful mother but fearing the consequences, still not sure who she is, and using her memoir to shape, perhaps to re-shape, her story. Helping Brooke to tell her story in a way that shows her parents in negative light is Silda (Martha Hackett), Polly’s recovering alcoholic sister, who by this time in her life shares with Polly only their mutual anger. Hackett’s Silda is something of a lost soul, sleeping late, wearing designer knock-offs, frail in body and spirit but able to counterpunch on occasion, the opposite of her dominating, always-in-control sibling.
The fifth member of the family is Trip (Scott Drummond), Brooke’s younger brother. A more balanced personality, who has learned to maintain some degree of neutrality and detachment amidst the family strife, he is the only character capable of seeing both sides of arguments between other family members. Drummond gives a relaxed, casual air to his character, in contrast to the tightly wound, emotionally fraught nature of the others.
Silda, Polly, Lyman, and Brooke all have different takes on who Henry was and what led to his tragedy (Trip was too young to have been deeply involved). The interaction of their divergent narratives, all incomplete, all with one bias or another, some involving deliberate omissions or deceptions, raise tensions as the second act progresses, until a major plot twist turns assumptions on their heads. The characters react in a variety of ways: Lyman becomes loudly overwrought, Polly grimly hangs on, Brooke’s face gradually crumples into tears, Trip just watches, and Silda stays curled up on the couch, not reacting. (By this point in the play, these latter two characters, while remaining on stage, virtually disappear from the action, a weak point in the script.)
Other Desert Cities incorporates many typical elements of the family drama genre, though it does so skillfully enough to avoid being simply formulaic. Family members gather, exchange accusations, air resentments, and repeat lies. Secrets have corrosive, destructive effects on them. Characters see only bits and pieces of reality, always colored by their own perspectives and interests, and there are no guarantees that the truth will actually set anyone free.
Baitz makes what may be an attempt to mitigate the dark tone of the play’s climax by tacking on a brief, somewhat awkward, coda in which, in 2010, Brooke gives a bookstore reading from her book. It is implied by the passage of time that, as her father had asked, she has waited until after her parents’ death to publish; it is not clear whether the book was revised to include the second act’s big surprise. By her dress, hairstyle, and demeanor, Brooke appears by this point to be a more integrated personality, more reconciled to her own, and to her family’s, history. But she is still telling her story, which, after all, is primarily what a memoir is about.
The play has a very noticeable political viewpoint, one highly critical of Republicans and conservatives of the Reagan and Bush 43 eras, almost to the point of caricature. With their little prejudices and insular attitudes, the older Wyeths are an easy target for Silda’s and Brooke’s political jibes. While Baitz tries to humanize Polly and Lyman as parents, especially in the second act, there is little in the script that is inconsistent with a complacent, Democratic-leaning perspective on the Regan and Bush years. Playwrights should play fair with their characters, even those representing political positions with which the playwright (and much of his audience) might disagree, and the script falls short in this respect.
Other Desert Cities is a good, rather than a great, script, and the success of a production rests largely with the quality of the acting. Arena’s production scores high in this respect, particularly with Carey giving a riveting performance, dominating the stage as her character dominates her family. All the portrayals were credible, though, in the final confrontation among the three main characters, Bryggman was more histrionic than necessary.
Some reviews have drawn parallels between Other Desert Cities and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, another family drama involving family secrets leading to unhappy results. However much Other Desert Cities may reflect difficult family dynamics that can arise anywhere, this is a story that, unlike Miller’s work, is very contained within the rarified world of the one percent. There’s a good deal to be said for plays, whether those of Miller or, for example, Arena’s Good People and the Shakespeare Theater’s Coriolanus earlier this season, that concern family and social conflicts in a wider universe.
Photos by Scott Suchman
- Trip Wyeth: Scott Drummond
- Brooke Wyeth: Emily Donahue
- Polly Wyeth: Helen Carey
- Lyman Wyeth: Larry Bryggman
- Silda Grauman: Martha Hackett
- Director: Kyle Donnelly
- Set Designer: Kate Edmunds
- Costume Designer: Nan Cibula-Jenkins
- Lighting Designer: Nancy Schertler
- Original Music and Sound Designer: David Van Tieghem
- Stage Manager: Martha Knight
- Assistant Stage Manager: Kurt Hall
- New York Casting: Tara Rubin Casting
Disclaimer: Arena Stage provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9462.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.