The past is ineluctably and achingly present in Jon Robin Baitz‘s moving (and occasionally frustrating) drama, Other Desert Cities (at the Guthrie through March 24). The Wyeths, Polly and Lyman, have left smoggy L.A., chockfull of ego and intrigue and have moved to the desert, to happy happy Gerald Ford-land – Palm Springs – where the mountains tower, unchanging and uncaring. Set designer James Youmans and light designer Paul Whitaker recreate the desert in all its sterile beauty. We watch the sun make its stunning journey up the o’er-towering mountains.
Conservative GOP stalwarts, (Lyman, a one-time actor, became a diplomat for his close personal pals Ron and Nancy), the Wyeths are enjoying a sterile and uneventful retirement in the desert. Perfection obtains.
Except that the past won’t let them alone; it arrives in the person of daughter Brooke, a writer, recovering from a debilitating depression and a divorce (“I was married three years,” she tells her parents. “That’s like twenty for your generation.”). Her recent illness has changed her, given her raw passion, on-her-sleeves emotionality. Brooke has written a book, a memoir, about the family, but specifically about brother Henry, now deceased. Henry’s memory represents for the Wyeths a knot of pain they stridently wish to leave be. “Don’t betray the trust of your family,” Polly warns her. But Brooke remains determined.
Into this turbulent mix comes youngest brother Trip, a successful producer of reality TV, and Polly’s alcoholic sister Silda. No longer drinking, Silda is now addicted, deliciously, to harsh truth-telling. A marvelous character.
This is as much of the play’s plot as I’m going to reveal. Other Desert Cities revels in an onion-like peeling away of layers, as characters disclose details, about what happened in the past, about themselves, about how they struggle to move forward. To give away the plot would be disservice to the play, and to you.
Ignorable critic’s opinion following herewith: Baitz violates a major tenet of playwriting. You can’t have a character telling another character something that character already knows. If you do, you risk making your play static, contrived and past-tensey, a trap which often ensnares Other Desert Cities. The play also suffers from New York-itis; characters are rich (Brooke claims to be impoverished, but she lives in toney Sag Harbor), successful and breathtakingly self-absorbed.
But my lovely companion, as well many members of the opening night Guthrie crowd, had no such reservations. They laughed and caught their breath, enraptured by the acting which is, as always at the flying G, terrific. With a cast this good all director Peter Rothstein has to is suggest some blocking and then get the heck out of the way. This he has done; Rothstein’s best contribution is in the area of design, which astounds.
Anyway: as the pot-smoking younger-brother Trip, Christian Conn is terrific, a younger, looser, funkier version of his mother. He provides much needed emotional anchorage. No one does slatternly cynicism like Michelle Barber (as evidenced by her excellent Martha at the Jungle’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?). To this she adds fragility and powerful depth of feeling. I truly identified; Silda is, hands down, my favorite character in Other Desert Cities.
Kelly McAndrew plays Brooke. This is a difficult role; potentially off-putting self-pity is a trap. This McAndrew avoids, opting for raw laughter, focus on the work, firm determination to get the events of Henry’s death out in the open. Baitz has written this character well and McAndrew provides solid emotional bulwark.
And then there are the always-marvelous Sally Wingert and David Anthony Brinkley as the parents. Wingert controls the flow of the play, brittle, prowling the McGuire, perfectly coiffed and buttoned down, calmly neurotic, fiercely protective of her marriage, her family and what remains of her sanity. Brinkley seems relaxed, almost dull (he refuses to read Brooke’s book). But he comes into his own in Act 2, in a beautifully moving, not-to-be-revealed turn. Wingert and Brinkley excel.
The last scene takes place in sunny Seattle and involves a truly awe-inspiring design motif. I won’t say what it is. You’ve never seen anything like it.
Any reservations about the story of Other Desert Cities are mooted by the powerful acting. Recommended.
For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.