"Families are terrorized by their weakest member,” says a character in Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities. The line’s got that yowza zing to it, as if a fire-spewing profundity. But give it some thought and, well, wouldn’t it depend on which member of the family defined the terror? And wouldn’t the “weak” person possibly see him/herself in a different light — and not weak at all?
It depends on who makes the comment or, in the play, who controls the family’s carefully buffed image.
Before he became a politician, GOP chairman, and an ambassador under Reagan, Lyman Wyeth died at least 50 times in movies. His wife Polly wrote a comedy series for MGM with her sister Silda. The name Wyeth recalls the American artist famous for, among other things, his inscrutability. Lyman and Polly now live in gated-community elegance in Palm Springs. Mt. San Jacinto looms beyond their curved, sliding glass door. It’s 2004, a post-9/11 year when things were either Red or Blue. Their House Beautiful manse is a haven of conservative, Red tradition in an allegedly Blue state.
If you don’t count a closet full of skeletons. After he was involved in the protest-bombing of an Army recruit depot, radical son Henry left the world à la Hart Crane: jumped off the stern of a boat. His sister Brooke, a one-book novelist, hasn’t been the same since. She rejected her parents’ “family values,” moved to the East Coast, and is now coming through a severe bout of depression — with a new manuscript in hand.
Not a novel, as expected; it’s Love and Mercy, a tell-all memoir of the Wyeths. It’s her best writing ever, and she’s told the “real truth.” Brooke breaks the news to her parents on New Year’s Eve day. The announcement cleaves the clan.
Other Desert Cities — the title comes from a sign in Palm Springs (and the road not taken) — has a formulaic familiarity: estranged family comes together, life-changing secrets get unearthed, emotional guns blaze, images fracture, new understanding results. It’s the recipe for many of the plays we see these days (call it the All My Sons Syndrome, after Arthur Miller’s early drama).
Baitz grafts a second formula onto the first: culture wars. Even though she says she hasn’t a “bigoted bone in my body,” Polly’s elitism excludes every race, color, and creed, including, it turns out, her own. Henry’s on the far left. Then come fellow-travelers Brooke and Silda, Polly’s recently rehabbed sister. Trip, who produces a goofy TV show, is centrist, and Lyman’s somewhere on the right. The facile cross-section is as diverse as Noah’s Ark.
It also enables Baitz’s people to make summary statements about the times, as when Trip says, “Funny is all we have left”; or enraged Polly leap-frogs the ’60s when yelling at Brooke, “The story of your generation is drugs!”
In effect, the Wyeths form a spectrum. This includes their often hilarious wisecracking in Act One. Some of it, the funniest lines, are character-driven; the rest buttress a theme or attitude. As has been said of Arthur Miller, Baitz’s plays would improve if he decontrolled them.
Familial and cultural paraphernalia aside, where the play works, and works well: Other Desert Cities is about pretending, keeping up pretenses, and passing as something one isn’t. Masks run deep in this family. Each has played a role so well it’s become ingrained — and subtext-free. In this sense, they undergo an actor’s nightmare: not flubbing lines but being discovered that they’ve been acting all along.
The play’s schematic (and the turned-tables ending erases all that came before). The Old Globe production is anything but. Somehow, director Richard Seer’s found ways of integrating most, but not all, of the manic mood swings and the author’s HEADLINED messages into an engrossing piece.
It starts with the set. If the Wyeths ever get strapped for cash, they could loan their house to a hotel chain. Or SeaWorld, since the living room’s tall windows suggest a Shamu-sized fishbowl. The fireplace looks like the cone of a rocket’s exhaust nozzle. A Hockney-esque painting of a swimmer in swirling blue water keeps Henry always in mind. Charlotte Devaux’s costumes run the gambit from Sag Harbor grunge to a sultan’s bevy of silks. And, like the play, York Kennedy’s lighting evolves from a chipper morning to midnight.
The play’s about pretending, and Seer’s cast excels at it. Under a football helmet of blond hair, Kandis Chappell’s an icy control freak (who, it turns out, has exercised admirable self-control, once she lets her hair down). Robert Foxworth makes a difficult task look routine: Lyman is not a boat-rocker, until a torpedo comes his way. Andy Bean does what he can as Trip — half specter, half human being — and rips through his monologue about happiness at the top of Act Two. As loose as Polly is rigid, Robin Pearson Rose’s Silda offers ongoing comic relief, as when she tells Polly, “I’m going to have to learn to deal with you now that I’m sober.”
Dana Green, adept at Shakespeare on the summer festival stage, gives full vent to Brooke’s angst, even when the playwright goes on a witch hunt. ■
Other Desert Cities, by Jon Robin Baitz
Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park
Directed by Richard Seer; cast: Dana Green, Kandis Chappell, Robert Foxworth, Andy Bean, Robin Pearson Rose; scenic design, Alexander Dodge; costumes, Charlotte Devaux; lighting, York Kennedy; sound, Paul Peterson
Playing through June 2; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623