Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities has arrived 175 miles west of Palm Springs at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre in a production that makes it abundantly clear why the 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist stands as one of the best written, most thought-provoking, and ultimately most moving plays of the last decade.
Taking as its theme the continental divide that has polarized America into mud-slinging camps of liberals vs. conservatives, the Best Play Tony nominee gives that culture gap a decidedly personal, familial note.
It is Christmas morning 2004, and rather than head sensibly on down the highway to the “other Desert Cities” beyond Palm Springs, adult siblings Brooke and Trip Wyeth (Michelle Duffy and Trey Ellett) have agreed to spend the holidays with their parents Polly and Lyman (Amanda McBroom and Granville Van Dusen), the kind of folks who find Donald Rumsfeld’s visit to the troops in Baghdad “a nice thoughtful Christmas present.”
Brooke has ventured Out West from Long Island, where she earns a modest living writing articles for magazines like Gourmet and Travel & Leisure. Making her first visit “home” in six years, she has only recently recovered from years of debilitating depression, years during which Lyman and Polly watched helplessly as their daughter succumbed deeper and deeper into her personal darkness.
Raised the daughter of Hollywood semi-royalty, Brooke sees her movie-star-turned-GOP-chair-turned-ambassador father as having “sold out” by trading in his B-movie-stardom for right-wing politics, a move that Lyman prefers to dub “a higher calling.” (Not surprisingly, the Wyeths have counted Ron and Nancy Reagan among their closest friends.)
While Brooke went off to pursue a career in writing on the East Coast, her “ADD-riddled, junk-food-addicted, porn-surfing little brother” Trip has followed in his parents’ Hollywood footsteps, creating the hit TV show Jury Of Your Peers, a People’s Court-type reality program featuring real litigants, a retired judge (from Encino no less), and a jury made up, not of regular folks like you and I, but of actual, honest-to-goodness stars (or as Polly puts it, “some very moth-eaten, down-on-their-luck has-beens.”)
Though Brooke’s visit home might, on the surface, seem merely a long-postponed holiday reunion, she has brought along her soon-to-be-published manuscript, not the second novel her parents have assumed her to be writing, but a family memoir penned in an attempt to find answers to her many questions about Henry, the older brother “whom we can’t talk about,” who “went to war with our parents, joined a cult, disappeared, and then planted a bomb in an army recruiting center, before killing himself.”
Unable to stop from obsessing about why her brother and best friend jumped off a ferry into freezing water, choosing to leave his parents a note while ignoring his beloved sister in his final moments, Brooke has written her memoir as a way of getting the facts out into the open, her belief in truth-at-any-cost once again putting her at odds with her parents’ (and particularly Polly’s) insistence upon privacy-by-all-means.
Completing the cast of characters is Polly’s recovering alcoholic sister Silda (Deborah Taylor), with whom Polly co-wrote “the Hillary movies,” a hit film series now available in a boxed DVD set stretching from Here Comes Hillary to the series finale Hasta La Vista Hillary, the latter entirely penned by Silda during a feud with her sister. At long last reconciled, or at least for the time being, Polly and Silda have declared a cease-fire, though whether it will last beyond this Christmas season is anyone’s guess.
Playwright Baitz keeps Act One packed with smart, snappy one-liners that might lead unsuspecting theatergoers to think what they’re seeing is a comedy, and if all there were in Other Desert Cities were its first act, Baitz would still have written tellingly about parents and their grown children of opposing political beliefs as he did on TV’s Brothers And Sisters.
It’s Baitz’s second act that elevates Other Desert Cities from first-rate dramedy to contemporary classic, as secrets are uncovered, truths turn out to be lies, and a family we’ve thought we’ve pegged end up surprising us in ways we would never have expected.
Under Brian McDonald’s incisive direction, each and every one of Baitz’s complex, conflicted, compelling cast of characters come to unforgettable life, beginning with the now New York-based Duffy, for over a decade one of L.A.’s busiest and best stage performers, in only her second SoCal appearance since a 2012 move back east.
The vocally-gifted star of one early-2000s musical smash after another proves herself every bit as terrific in a non-singing role as she was in Can-Can, Mask, Kiss Me Kate, to name just three Duffy hits. The Best Actress Ovation Award winner’s richly-layered, richly-rewarding take on the angry, hurt, resentful Brooke is a wonder to behold, a seething caldron of repressed rage whose discoveries over the course of a single weekend are life-changing to say the least.
It’s hard to imagine a finer duo to play the brittle, impeccably dressed-and-groomed Polly and her strong-silent-type husband Lyman than McBroom and Van Dusen, even better here than they were in the Rubicon’s 2007 revival of A Delicate Balance. The renowned stage and screen vets bring Act One’s irreproachable manners, carefully cultivated poise, and overall Ronnie-Nancy dynamic to pitch-perfect life, and as Act Two allows masks to fall, the twosome are even more brilliant.
Ellett (like Duffy and McBroom a terrific musical theater performer in show after show) couldn’t be better cast, nor could he deliver a finer performances than his Trip, whose addictions to junk food and pot may not show on the outside but have clearly taken their inner toll, an unconditionally loving son and brother torn between parents and sibling even as he longs for a family peace that seems illusive at best.
Last but not least is Taylor’s deliciously blowsy take on recovering alcoholic Silda, whose acerbic asides—one-liners that hide decades of anger and resentments—manage to score laughs even when Other Desert Cities turns gut-wrenchingly dramatic.
Scenic designer Thomas S. Giamaro’s Lyman family home reveals both its elegant “desert cities ambiance” and the lives of the couple who have lived there for so long, a design enhanced by his own subtly effective lighting. Costume designer Michael Mullen proves himself as adept at creating attire reflecting the personalities and style of a straight play’s small but eclectic cast of characters as he has in one flashy, splashy big-cast musical after another. T. Theresa Scarano’s props and set dressing add to the desert elegance, with Peter Bayne’s original music and sound design and Danielle White’s hair and wig design completing the production design to perfection.
Jessie Vacchiano is production stage manager. Christina M. Burck is production manager. David King is technical director. Hugh A. Rose takes over the role of Lyman in the production’s final week.
Those discovering Other Desert Cities for the first time can expect to be mesmerized throughout. Return visitors will have the added pleasure of observing Brooke’s family from a more clued-in perspective. If you’re anything like this reviewer, you’ll want to see Other Desert Cities more than once, and the Rubicon Theatre production proves both a perfect introduction and a deeply satisfying return visit to the Wyeths’ Palm Springs abode.
Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main Street, Ventura.
June 6, 2015
Photos: Christopher Brown