Almost all writers are variable, sometimes better, sometimes less so. Jon Robin Baitz is no exception, and his oeuvre has the usual hills and valleys. His new play, Other Desert Cities, in an excellent production, definitely holds the interest and provides a surprise ending. Watched, it is a hill; read, it may be more like halfway up.
It is Christmas Eve 2004 in
Conversation in the Wyeth home in preparation to having dinner at the country club is sophisticated, often witty, and always brisk. Thus Brooke claims that watching her brother’s TV show would mean nothing to her, which he answers with “Unless you’ve suddenly become Amish, that’s unbelievably pretentious.” Polly rebukes her daughter, “I think living on the east coast has given you the impression that sarcasm is alluring and charming. It is not. Sarcasm is the purview of teenagers and homosexuals.” “Now that I’m single,” retorts the divorced Brooke, “those are basically my two preferred social groups.”
Elizabeth Marvel and Thomas Sadoski.>>>
This is droll, even if “purview” isn’t quite the mot juste (“province” would be), and it doesn’t wholly convince under closer scrutiny. We enjoy unqualifiedly the daughter telling her parents that “three years of marriage these days is like twenty when you guys were kids.” Brooke has a successfully published novel to her credit, and has just finished the manuscript of an autobiography. She stares out of the window and wonders about a symbolic highway sign where you can either turn off to Palm Springs or keep on driving to “Other Desert Cities.,” soon to be folowed by this bit of dialogue, reproducing as Baitz’s always does, the loose syntax of conversation.
POLLY: It runs in the family. The despair. Your brother. He couldn’t outrun it. . . . . On Lyman’s side, Scots blood, not mine, very cheerful people from my side, Texans, Westerners.
TRIP: You mean rabbis, don’t you?
When Silda, a late sleeper, emerges, she complains of “more Nazi dreams than <<<(L-R) Elizabeth Marvel, Stacey Keach, and Thomas Sadoski.
Two things predominate: what was done to alienate Henry, and should Brooke publish an autobiography critical of her parents’ behavior, and concentrating on laments for the loss of Henry. Which leads to discussions of what is more important: the truth of art or the compromises of life.
To be sure things become so dire that the Wyeths never get to the country club, and that the parents withdraw to their rooms and leave the others regretful, critical, and at each other’s throats. Silda manages to be especially funny, but also protective of Brooke’s manuscript, on which she advised, and insisting on the need to get it published.
Other Desert Cities is a lot of things: social satire, political inquiry, family drama, drawing-room comedy, and thriller surrounding Henry. It does pretty well on all those counts, though on closer inspection it indulges in some facile effects and slightly too arch dialogue. But with a clever set by John Lee Beatty, idiomatic costumes by David Zinn, and bright California lighting by Kenneth Posner, it plays very deftly under Joe Mantello’s direction, which making living room activities almost as lively as action on a battlefield, which this ultimately is. The five-member cast could not be a more perfect ensemble. Stacy Keach’s Lyman has both the animation of a former actor and the savvy of an ex-diplomat. Stockard Channing’s Polly artfully blends the socialite with the concerned but imperfect mother. Elizabeth Marvel’s Brooke finds the exact blend of intensity and insecurity. Thomas Sadoski’s Trip makes opportunism attractive and not unreconcilable with precocious wisdom. Linda Lavin juggles amusing sassiness, prickly outspokenness, and good-humored self-criticism with prestidigitorial aptitude. Tempers are prodigally lost and prodigiously recovered, even if some of it smacks a bit too much of calculation, as does Baitz’s overpoetic title.
The choice of names like Brooke and Trip show how with-it Baitz is; despite an occasional raised eyebrow, you will enjoy sharing his sophistication.
Photos by and courtesy of Joan Marcus.
Lincoln Center Theater
150 West 65th Street
Telecharge.com or www.lct.com
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College. To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.