Meet the Wyeths: Lyman Wyeth, the patriarch of the family, is an ex-movie-star-turned-Ambassador; his wife, Polly, is an ex-screenwriter; both are members of the powerful subset of the Hollywood aristocracy that supports the GOP. Brooke, their daughter, is a novelist who has recently emerged from years of debilitating depression to finish her second book; Trip, their younger son, is the writer-producer of a schlock reality courtroom drama called “Jury of Your Peers”; both of them are the kind of left-coast liberals that Lyman and Polly’s friends at Fox News would sneeringly label “elites.” And then there’s Polly’s sister Silda Grauman, an ex-alcoholic who was at one time her sister’s writing partner. She’s come to live with Polly and Lyman while she endures yet another stint through rehab, and her presence on the scene highlights just how far Polly has fallen from her own family tree: Silda retains the New York Jewish cadence and progressive politics of their upbringing, while Polly has reinvented herself as a Texan WASP, complete with Bush-like twang and a taste for racial epithets like “Chink food.” Brooke & Trip have come to Lyman and Polly’s luxurious Palm Springs abode to visit for Christmas, and Brooke has brought along a manuscript copy of her new book, which, it turns out, is not a novel at all but a memoir about their family that revolves around the family’s darkest moment: the disappearance and apparent suicide of their oldest son, Henry, after he had been involved with a group that protested the first Bush’s Iraq War by setting off an explosion at an army recruiting center that killed a janitor.
Should she publish the book? What will it do to her family if she does? These seem to be what my former colleague Milan Stitt used to call “the major dramatic questions” of the play, and to my mind the problem with questions like these is that they beg the question: why should I care? In many ways, we’re in soap opera territory with Other Desert Cities; our cast of characters is a set of overprivileged, overindulged people with terrible dark secrets they keep from one another and wield as weapons in the fight for moral superiority, or affection, or control, or whatever other emotional/psychological needs they have vis-à-vis one another. At the same time, the play lacks the fascination a daytime soap serves up in the form of truly monstrous and overblown villains (and laughably guileless and blindsided victims). To his credit, playwright Jon Robin Baitz has written characters who are, for the most part, realistically ambiguous and multi-faceted: there are no Republican ogres here, no liberated children out to serve revenge on their evil parents, no sister scheming behind the scenes to destroy her frenemy sibling. Instead, we have loving, genuinely conflicted parents; confused offspring who were too young to fully comprehend the tragedy that marked their childhood; and a sister relationship that seems based on a mutual inheritance of saint-like levels of patience and forgiveness for past (and present) wrongs and slights. But unfortunately, this realism is not accompanied by any real psychological depth or mystery in the characters themselves — when they are not wearing their psychological flaws on their sleeves, they have them thrown in their face by the other characters on stage. These two-dimensional characters should be in a comedy, not a drama, and they are frankly neither interesting nor sympathetic enough to make us care deeply about their fates.
It may be that Other Desert Cities is in fact intended to be a comedy, and the production at the Public has not yet found its stride (I saw the play in preview, and it will of course grow and change by opening night). The play certainly has many funny lines, particularly in the opening scene. But it seems that the play is attempting to do too many things, and as a result does not do any of them really well. As a portrait of a dysfunctional family, it fails to provide the kind of psychological nuance and depth that makes plays like Streetcar or Death of a Salesman sizzle and bite. As an investigation of the political schism that has polarized the country, it is so general in its characterization of the “right” and the “left” that each appear to be Pillsbury doughboy targets, so soft they can’t be pierced. As a result, there’s a lot of missed opportunity for satire against both sides of the aisle. Again, this may be a problem of production choices rather than the playwriting. Should we find it funny that Lyman and Polly’s son Trip is precisely the sex-addicted pot-smoking value-free lefty his father worries will destroy America, or should we find it (as I did) bad faith deck-stacking? In addition, the play seems to want to humanize conservatives for its presumed left-wing audience, but in so doing it undermines its own revelation of the poisonous hypocrisy at the root of right-wing ideology. I don’t want to give too much of the play’s big “reveal” away, but in the end, it misses a chance to highlight the irony of Lyman and Polly’s use of their privilege and power to skirt the very laws and morals they so highhandedly claim to support.
Baitz’s story depends on a lot of history, which means that a good deal of the dialogue is taken up with exposition, not all of it elegant and natural. One of the problems with this play – as with so many family dramas of its ilk – is that it burdens the actors with the task of telling each other what the characters all already know so that the audience can know it and get on board the journey. The cast at the Public was getting a good handle on the task during previews, and I trust they’ll only get more comfortable as the play settles into their bones. That’s all I will say about the production itself at this point; previews are, as I’m sure my gentle readers know, an extension of the rehearsal process, and since I must be out of town for much of the run of the show I will leave the review of the performance to others.