California changes things. Southern California, with its (mostly) perpetual sunshine, especially seems to work decisive alterations in whatever moves westward—objects, people, ideas. Eerily blending laid-back sociability and psychotic road rage, the region’s spirit, with its profit-driven aesthetics and its fashion-based, bipolar politics, makes every aspect of American life that it engulfs the same only different, pepped up with additives but lacking a few essential nutrients.
Set among wealthy conservative retirees in Palm Springs, Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities (Newhouse Theater) strives, often excitingly, to analyze SoCal’s sinister tendencies, but ends by succumbing to them, as if done in by the chlorinated poolside air. Taking place during one of the area’s paradoxically summery Christmas holidays, Baitz’s drama displays the emotionally land-mined family reunion of an eminent GOP couple and their long-estranged daughter. Lyman (Stacy Keach), a retired action-movie star, and his wife, Polly (Stockard Channing), a hard-nosed, ultra-right ex-screenwriter, face Brooke (Elizabeth Marvel), the clan’s unregenerate East Coaster, a once-promising novelist recuperating from a decades-long battle with depression and writer’s block.
Present to monitor the battle is Brooke’s baby brother, Trip (Thomas Sadoski), a reality-TV producer and a classic peacemaking youngest child, invariably stressed out but always ready to pour soothing oil on the family’s troubled waters. And Baitz provides an additional, sidelined combatant, Silda (Linda Lavin), Polly’s alcoholically self-destructive sister and ex–writing partner, helpless about living but quick with a leftist verbal dart to prick every right-wing dogma.
Obedient to the long-standing tradition of American plays set at family reunions, everybody in Other Desert Cities comes equipped with a secret, to be tossed into the family’s lap just when it will cause maximal shock. Here, most of the secrets revolve around the elder brother who’s the one absentee from this holiday non-party. Differing versions of what happened to the elder brother arrive, carefully layered into the action, as the family members ’fess up, one by one, to their roles in his mysterious disappearance. Brooke has written a tell-all memoir, mainly dealing with the time of his vanishing, on which she urgently needs her parents to sign off. Even Silda, who has secretly been feeding Brooke details, turns out to have suppressed a few that reflect badly on her, while the placating Lyman and his implacable spouse turn out to be sitting on the biggest bombshell of all.
Such plays invariably provide juicy comfort food for actors, and Joe Mantello’s production gives his superlative cast every chance to feed on the hearty helpings Baitz has dished up for each of his characters, peppered with showbiz wisecracks and drenched in lush emotional gravy. The second-act revelations trigger a string of particularly memorable actor-moments: Keach seized with shakes as he struggles to justify his dealings with his lost son; the animal wail that Marvel, balled up fetally on a hassock, emits as she learns the whole truth about what happened; Sadoski’s silent attempt to absorb the successive revelations and simultaneously blot them out. Channing, a study in cold fury, moves through the events with the sharp precision of a best-quality chef’s knife, outdone only by Lavin, whose wicked way with verbal timing makes her the only artist I know who can bestride the stage while lying prone and motionless.
The plummy gratification of these performances makes up for the puzzlingly erratic quality of Baitz’s script, which ultimately cops out on its intriguing setup in typically Californian ways. He keeps sliding the family’s psychological conflicts in to deflect their political disagreements, and his inventive dialogue often seems shaped to gloss over the drama rather than dive toward its core. Politics never rises up to fill its rightful place in the generational dispute, while the one ostensibly going on within Lyman and Polly as individuals gets even shorter shrift, playing zero part in the rather abrupt epilogue.
Though the couple turn out to have been living a lie for decades, we never see them face the larger consequences of their deceit. Even more puzzlingly, given their high-ranking Republican connections (the action takes place in 2004), there’s no thought of their pulling strings to solve their problems in secret, though Republican political figures have lived by doing so since the days when Nancy Reagan was President. Baitz pays his ultra-conservatives the compliment of depicting them as capable of feeling guilt and remorse; that California sunshine must inspire a kind of drive-thru insta-forgiveness.