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Theater Reviews: The Culture Wars Are Alive and Well in Other Desert Cities

Thomas Sadoski and Stockard Channing in Other Desert Cities.

Like all the great desert tribes of antiquity, Palm Springs Republicans deserve their own sacred text. (For the purposes of this review, Prop 13 and My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan don’t count.) Jon Robin Baitz, a gay liberal humanist, has delivered them a doozy with Other Desert Cities, his off-Broadway hit, which has now ripened admirably on Broadway. Power, passion, and superbly crafted palaver stippled with blowdarts of wit—this is what Baitz (The Substance of Fire, TV’s Brothers and Sisters) does best. He’s written his favorite sort of story, a simple tale of parents and children and blame … in which the legacy of the Old American Century and the unsteady prospect of a new one just happen to be at stake.

The Wyeths are a clan of old-guard Hollywood conservatives left over from the halcyon days of Reagan and the Hays Code. Lyman (Stacy Keach) was the rock-steady face and seat-shaking voice of a thousand glorious war movies and, later, a big macher in the California GOP; his ingratiating bonhomie and silverback bulk conceal deep fissures of anxiety and regret. His wife Polly (the imperial Stockard Channing) is made of sterner stuff, and casually drops lines like “I have a stake in upholding the entrepreneurial American spirit” without batting a false eyelash. No Tinseltown trophy spouse, Polly made her bones as a screenwriter, churning out Gidget-style pictures with her hippie-dipso sister Silda (Judith Light, stepping surefootedly into the shoes of Linda Lavin), who now lives on Wyeth largesse in Palm Springs in a state of permanent recovery. (A couch-surfing loyal opposition, Silda spits flecks of dissent into her sister’s Goldwater conservatism—and if her position’s somewhat undermined by the fact that she doesn’t pay rent, well, no one can tell her that.)

They’re all in recovery, really—hearty and quippy enough on the surface, every one of these twilight gods of midcentury emerged from the sixties unscathed. Politics, as a subject, is banned outright. (The year is 2004—which, you’ll recall, wasn’t a great moment to relitigate the Vietnam Era if you wanted to get through Christmas dinner in one piece.) So it’s an awkward Christmas homecoming for their two surviving children, the troubled Gen-X novelist Brooke (Rachel Griffiths, taking over for Elizabeth Marvel) and her blithely functional younger brother Trip (Thomas Sadoski), a self-aware and self-possessed reality-television producer who’s poised to inherit, by default, full custodianship of the less-able Wyeths. “Families get terrorized by their weakest member,” Polly warns her son, who reminds her crisply: “You want everyone to be a goddamn marine.”

Polly detests weakness and its simpering twin, fairness. “I hate being fair,” she says, without irony, and Trip answers, “They should put that on your tombstone: ‘Here lies Polly Wyeth: She hated being fair.’ But you are, mom.” That grudging fairness, however, is about to be tested. There’s a third Wyeth child, Henry, who’s conspicuously absent from this year’s Christmas festivities. Yet his presence is felt in every word uttered and every (rare) silence. The circumstances of his downfall—a Weather Underground-style bombing, a bystander burned alive, shame and exile for his parents—are the subject of Brooke’s new book. She intends to publish the family’s dirty laundry, no matter how her publicity-shy parents respond to the manuscript she’s brought along. Still, she’s terrified to reveal its contents to Polly and Lyman, whom she blames for Henry’s fate: In her telling (which, it turns out, is also Silda’s), two “true believers” destroyed, abandoned, and ultimately drove to oblivion their shaggy, sensitive, left-leaning eldest son, simply because he didn’t conform to their patent-leather vision of all-American wholesomeness. But when Brooke finally confronts them with her account, Polly and Lyman have some revelations for her, too. The family secrets aren’t perhaps quite as shocking as Baitz wants them to be, but the bravura verbal contretemps this round-robin truthletting spawns is nothing short of dazzling. Griffiths keys into the more predatory, compulsive and vindictive undertones in Brooke, a role that Marvel never felt like she was relishing. (She seemed more interested in the character’s scars and ended up neglecting her rather impressive claws.) Trip, the reluctant mediator and voice of post-ideological compromise, goes from mere bulwark to torchbearer for the flaming moderate. (His furious “I am California” monologue should be set to music—and Sadoski delivers it so brilliantly, so authoritatively, we forget that he isn’t, in fact, California, in any sense germane to lifestyle or median income. He is a very wealthy television producer with an unwieldy family to hold together.) Light, as Silda, is more than a sideshow: She’s a legitimate moral force incensed at her own, partially self-induced dispossession and lack of standing. And Keach lures us into the family’s notion of him as a harmless gentle-Ben, happy in his cage—but when he rears back on his hind legs, watch out.

Of course, Channing steers most of the show—with complete sympathy for Polly and no punches pulled. She hides more than mere self-righteousness beneath her leathery (but hardly impenetrable) pelt and affected “pioneer” drawl. “Why is it that children are allowed a sort of endless series of free passes in this life?” she asks Brooke, who promptly points out that Polly’s politics make no distinction between “free pass” and “free will.” Channing, boring into her brittle daughter with drillbit eyes and a voice soft as damnation, turns the tables: “There are consequences to our actions,” she says, her voice never rising above a whispered imprecation. “You would still be my daughter, but the meaning of it would change... That is who I am. You would lose us. So you understand.” Ahhh. It’s enough to make you miss vintage Republican patricians of the old school—they make great characters in grand talk-operas like Other Desert Cities. Baitz is in such good form, he practically makes you forget you’re watching yet another play (sprawled across yet another luscious John Lee Beatty set) about the woes of the 1 percent. Gather round the Alexander-style indoor fire-pit, fellow pilgrims, and let us tell sad stories of the deaths (okay, the dwindlings) of aristocracies. And why not? The outcomes do have a funny habit of trickling down.

* * *

In the snappy first scene of Andrew Hinderaker’s Suicide, Incorporated, we see young Jason (4000 Miles’ Gabriel Ebert) making a career change: He’s left a solid job writing Hallmark-birthday-card copy to interview at an exciting new startup, one that’s looking to exploit a growing market: custom-designed, ghostwritten suicide notes. His new boss, Scott (the exciting newcomer Toby Leonard Moore), wants to know if he’s got what it takes to shape and edit the final missives of the self-slaughtered. Jason assures Scott that he will “work my heart out to make sure our clients write the best note they can.” This is a very broad but promisingly absurd situation... which, we’re soon distressed to learn, the play is dead set on taking completely seriously. Suicide is a big miscalculation on Hinderaker’s part, but as miscalculations go, it’s not unfruitful or less-than-engaging. Jason, it turns out, is an anti-suicide mole who moonlights at a helpline and schemes to bring Scott’s company down; when a client named Norm (Middletown’s James McMenamin) turns up, we’re treated, intermittently, to a lively Glengarry-esque showdown, where two men battle for possession of a third. Hinderaker’s at his best when he’s in motion like this, letting smart actors bat each other around the room, and the director, Jonathan Berry, is right there with him, coaching everyone to go for the pin. The more brooding scenes, on the other hand, reveal the play’s weakness for gimmickry, its emotional drabness, its stubborn unwillingness to exceed the confinements of its own premise. Hinderaker has some interesting, sensitive things to say about masculinity and masochism, and, in subsequent plays, I’ve no doubt he’ll get out of his own way and just say them.

Other Desert Cities is at the Booth Theatre through January 8.
Suicide, Incorporated is at the Roundabout's Black Box Theater through December 23.

Photo: Joan Marcus