Even though it’s set on Christmas Eve, Other Desert Cities is not your typical holiday fare. Sure, there’s plenty of booze, a Christmas tree in the corner, and an aunt who says inappropriate things, but there’s also a daughter who’s publishing her memoir, in which she dissects the death of her older brother and reveals her family’s dark secrets.
Jon Robin Baitz’s 2011 play (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) appears at first glance to be an icy takedown of the Republican mindset and fractured family dynamics. Daughter Brooke has flown in from Southampton and son Trip drove from LA, gathering at Polly and Lyman’s tastefully exotic Palm Springs abode (there’s a swimming pool and tennis court out back). Brooke also happens to be recuperating from a depression-induced breakdown, while live-in Aunt Silda is a recovering alcoholic awash in a sea of booze: mimosas flow before breakfast and there’s a never-ending supply of vodka and whiskey. The Wyeths are stuck in a perpetually unhappy happy hour.
Polly and Lyman existed proudly for years as right-wingers in liberal Hollywood, she as a screenwriter of silly 1960s comedies and he as a movie star and later political ambassador. Their retirement to the desert was an opportunity to displays pictures of their good friends the Reagans, and to make racist remarks about hippies and foreigners within the comfort of their own secluded home. The play is set in 2004, near enough to the 9/11 attacks that Polly still frets about Brooke’s safety on Long Island and any jokes about Al Qaeda feel nervous and frantic.
Connie Coit nails Polly’s sniffy demeanor, gliding around the living room in colorful kimono tops with her blond hair pulled perfectly back. She’s balanced by John S. Davies as the patriarch Lyman, a man who’s clearly more at home acting a dramatic scene than actually participating in one. His unease is mirrored by goofy Trip (Jeff Burleson), a producer of lowbrow reality TV who’s as unfulfilled by his job as he is his family’s indulgent perception of him. When Burleson reaches into the Christmas tree and comes out with weed, giggling in nervous anticipation, it’s a perfect combination of childishness and sadness. “No one who takes pleasure as seriously as I do could possibly be happy,” he admits to his sister.
Lydia Mackay as Brooke and Cindee Mayfield as Silda beautifully balance the line between scene-stealers and ensemble players. Mayfield’s prickly honesty gives Silda a dimension other than comic relief, while Mackay quietly steers the show with her measured responses and thoughtful glances. Baitz, the creator of the TV show Brothers & Sisters and later a writer for The West Wing, doles out the surprises judiciously, leading to a twist ending that director-designer Jac Alder handles with deft simplicity. If your family’s holiday gatherings aren’t as explosive as this, be thankful.
Photo by Jeffrey Schmidt