By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy
Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities,” a 2011 drama rarely seen in Southern California since a Long Beach staging in the mid-2010s, joins countless utterly compelling portraits of fictional families in disarray, turmoil or outright dysfunction.
Lovers of great theater will applaud Newport Theatre Arts Center’s stellar production, likely discussing, analyzing and debating the play’s issues days after seeing it.
This compact drama is peppered with laughs but undergirded with a bedrock of one family’s conflicts – unresolved and otherwise – that block hidden truths from coming to light and being resolved.
Carl daSilva’s masterful direction brings the considerable strengths of Baitz’s script to the fore at NTAC. The capstone is his flawless quintet of actors, whose work couldn’t be improved upon. The result is an exceptionally compelling play that’s also a tremendously entertaining production.
The story unfolds in 2004 during the Iraq War, a backdrop that exacerbates the Wyeth family’s already pronounced political differences.
When the Wyeths gather at the secluded Palm Springs home of Lyman and Polly Wyeth (Jeff Paul and Linda Sutera) on Christmas Eve of 2004, years fraught with tension come to a head.
Daughter Brooke (Kendall Sinclair) opposes her parents’ right-wing stances with her aunt, Polly’s sister Silda (Alli Maier), allying with her while battling chronic alcoholism. While her younger brother Trip (Ben Green) would prefer neutrality, sister and parents implore him to get into the fray.
At issue is Brooke’s effort to uncover “what really happened” to her beloved older brother Henry, who during the ’70s joined the antiwar movement and wound up partaking of the bombing of a Southern California military recruitment center that caused a death.
Unlike Brooke’s first book, a hit novel, her new exposé reveals the family’s most painful chapter. She has never forgiven Lyman and Polly for refusing Henry’s requests for help, and now she wants the world to know the details.
Brooke gives the family advance copies to read and weigh in on – but she also wants her parents’ sanction, as The New Yorker magazine is poised to publish chapters in advance of the book’s impending publication.
Lyman and Polly fear the book will destroy their deep, longstanding GOP connections and alienate their political pals, and they’re outraged their own daughter would even commit such a painful tale to print. Intense conflict has bloomed into an all-out crisis.
Baitz posits whether Brooke is simply exploiting her family’s unimaginable and ultra-personal tragedy for profit and fame, using the book to extract revenge upon her parents, or indulging in a cathartic process needed to exorcise her own demons.
As Baitz shows, discussions and arguments escalate as the stakes are raised. Neither side is about to make any concessions or to back down, so where will “Other Desert Cities” land?
Three main scenes (the fourth essentially a coda) skillfully and gradually reveal the family’s background, history, work and careers, and personal lives – and their relationships with one another and with other, unseen characters.
The squabbles of the opening scene are fairly mild, leaving us unprepared for the acrimony that follows, yet as the first scene melts into the second, Baitz raises the temperature. Director and cast go with the script’s flow, giving NTAC patrons genuine intensity that’s honestly felt and communicated to us as bitterness that’s almost supercharged.
As Lyman and Polly were once Old Hollywood lefties – he a movie star, she a screenwriter – who shifted to the right and pursued politics, we’re tempted to regard them as a minor league Ron and Nancy. Yet DaSilva guides Paul and Sutera in what at first seems counterintuitive, sketching them as mostly laid-back, fairly permissive parents.
Sinclair likewise soft-pedals Brooke’s persona, projecting her independence and self-sufficiency while avoiding off-putting stridency, taking the harder road of avoiding one-note glum gloom.
Paul adds shadings and nuances to what could have been a potentially cardboard stereotype of a self-involved former star enamored of his storied filmic past, his considerable range creating an angst-ridden patriarch who’s appealing and wholly likable.
Sutera’s Polly will strike many as self-righteous, yet NTAC’s subtle staging creates, then reveals, lifelike layers that amplify this production’s sense of realism. This tough cookie despises weakness and denigrates everything left of center, but Baitz infuses gradations into the near-stereotypical battle-axe persona which Sutera and director daSilva then bring to the fore.
Paul, Sutera and Sinclair show us in no uncertain terms that each of these three hugely focal characters is driven by an inner certainty that’s absolute. Their interactions are compelling, and Paul and Sinclair, in particular, show the complexities that link Lyman and Brooke.
While Trip’s career starring in a reality TV courtroom series has us viewing him as the family lightweight, Green tempers his broadly comic reading, plumbing the character’s depths and revealing Trip’s introspection and lack of satisfaction with life.
Whereas Silda and Polly had been a successful team writing for the silver screen, Polly moved far from Silda’s left-wing ethos and her overindulgence in booze and grass. Maier lends the role of this larger-than-life, erstwhile hippie comedic panache but also plenty of welcome gravitas so we don’t simply write Silda off as a living train wreck.
The picture frame windows of Jim Huffman’s scenic design give us views of desert palms and purple sunsets, with a blue-and-silver clad Christmas tree complementing cinder blocks, framed family photos and a prominent fireplace with brick flue, all of which connote tasteful elegance and SoCal chic.
NTAC shows Baitz as a writer of monumental insight who has crafted a perceptive, incisive work of considerable power, with just enough witty humor to soften the blows.
While Baitz tends to indulge his characters’ tendency to speechify, which isn’t generally how conversations go in the real world, “Other Desert Cities” is still a potent piece of stagecraft. Divergent truths are at the core of this superb staging, which breathes rarified theatrical air, providing an unforgettable experience for all who see it.
Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Through February 11. Running time (includes intermission): Two hours, 20 minutes. 7:30 p.m. Thu.- Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Tickets: $30. Ticket purchase/information: (949) 631-0288, www.ntaconline.com.