I was wrong about Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities when I saw it in New York. The depth and the beauty of this play really came through in the new production at the Mark Taper Forum. It is filled with more humor, heartbreak, and pure emotion than I originally believed.
It is Christmas for the Wyeth family, and patriarch Lyman (Robert Foxworth), a Republican Party bigwig, and his wife Polly (JoBeth Williams) have welcomed their two children, Brooke (Robin Weigert) and Trip (Michael Weston), for a visit. Silda Gruaman (Jeannie Berlin), a recovering alcoholic and Polly’s sister, is also staying with the family in their Palm Springs home. Trip produces reality television, while Brooke is an author whose last book was published six years ago. She has suffered from severe bouts of depression since her older brother died years ago in an act of terrorism. When she announces that her new book is a memoir about the family, her parents are not happy.
What Mr. Baitz does so brilliantly is to coalesce his political arguments within a moving drama about family relationships and secrets. Carefully balancing comedy and tragedy, Other Desert Cities was deservedly a nominee for the Tony Award for Best Play and also a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
On Broadway the show was driven by the powerful performance of Stockard Channing as Polly. Here the anchor is Ms. Weigert. She so thoroughly embraces the role that at no moment during the performance did I ever think I was watching an actor. The entire production, skillfully directed by Robert Egan, feels like we are peeping in on the Wyeths. Mr. Weston is heartbreaking as Trip. Ms. Berlin is more grounded in this role than Judith Light who won a Tony Award for her performance. Mr. Foxworth had trouble erupting in the second act where truths are revealed, but he gives a very solid performance. Ms. Williams was good, but never built up the head of steam that Polly requires. Her performance is more of the “I think I can” variety – she never quite gets there, but damn if she doesn’t believe she will.
Whether you are a conservative, liberal, or an independent, you will find plenty of truths about familial relationships in Other Desert Cities. They aren’t always easy, but they will make you feel.