Theater review: Taut family ties

Crackling dialogue, beautiful set are highlights in sharp TheatreWorks drama

By Chad Jones

Jon Robin Baitz's "Other Desert Cities" is the kind of play they don't often make anymore. The last time the world of American drama paid attention to a family drama was Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," and that story of an explosive family shredded by secrets and hostilities has more than a few things in common with "Other Desert Cities" -- things like deep-held secrets and not-so-secret hostilities.

Baitz, who took a detour from the stage into television with the series "Brothers and Sisters" until network interference pushed him back to the theater, returns in fine form with "Desert Cities" and makes good on all that promise he showed with an early string of hits that included "The Substance of Fire" and "Three Hotels."

A respectable hit on Broadway in 2010, "Other Desert Cities" is now where it belongs: delighting audiences at regional theaters around the country. The Bay Area debut comes courtesy of TheatreWorks in a co-production with San Diego's The Old Globe, where it ran earlier this year with many of the same actors.

Like Baitz's TV show, "Other Desert Cities" centers on a well-heeled family that occupies opposite sides of the American political divide. Mom and dad, Polly and Lyman Wyeth, counted Ronnie and Nancy among their circle of GOP friends, and like that famous Washington couple, Polly and Lyman both have roots in Hollywood: he as a character actor famous for his death scenes and she for writing (in partnership with her sister) a series of '60s comedies that sound an awful lot like the "Gidget" movies.

Making the transition from movies to politics has paid off handsomely for the Wyeths who, in their golden years, are living in the kind of Palm Springs home that looks like it was designed less for living and more for making an impression in glossy magazines about the good life (the TheatreWorks set by Alexander Dodge is a thing of architectural beauty).

It's Christmas 2004, and Polly (Kandis Chappell) and Lyman (James Sutorius) are celebrating Christmas with their adult children, Trip (Rod Brogan), the producer of a goofy TV show involving court cases and celebrity juries; and Brooke (Kate Turnbull), a successful novelist who has battled depression. Polly's sister, Silda (Julia Brothers), is also in attendance, having just been released from rehab after five years of sobriety.

The Wyeths are a family that banters. The liberal kids are in constant opposition to their old-guard Republican parents, but it's a practiced, loving battle of many years. Or so it seems at the start. From the first mention of a dead son, Henry, who died many years before, the cracks begin to appear in the Wyeth facade.

The ground all but opens up when Brooke announces that she has written and sold a new book. The surprise is that this is not a novel but a memoir that deals candidly with the death of her brother and how his hippie-activist, anti-Vietnam ways clashed so tragically with his parents' political ambitions.

From the play's first moments, thanks largely to the incredible set, the audience is completely drawn into the Wyeth household drama, and once Baitz's crackling dialogue begins, resistance is futile. This is a classically well-made play about the theater of family: how each member chooses and plays a role, some more forcefully than others. There are no gimmicks as the drama unfolds over a couple of fraught December days. Whether this is a family breaking apart or ultimately pulling together isn't revealed until the last moments of the two-hour play.

Expertly directed by Richard Seer, this cast performs with such precision it's hard to imagine anyone better in the roles. Chappell dominates the stage as the powerhouse Polly, a bright woman so devoid of compassion (yet not of love) for her children it's almost shocking to hear some of the things that come out of her mouth. She's brutal but she's also funny, which makes her irresistible.

For his part, Sutorius' Lyman could come off as a doddering Reagan wannabe, but the actor's performance has depth and sadness that make for an endearing, if deeply flawed, portrait of the rich, white American male of the Republican variety.

Brothers' tart-tongued, truth-talking Silda is a scene-stealer, and so is Brogan's Trip, a role that could be seen as providing comic-relief zingers every once in a while. But until he is silenced in the last stretch of the play, Brogan is a major player in the emotional puzzle that is the Wyeth family.

As Brooke, the tortured writer who thinks she knows all she needs to know about her parents' hardness and her brother's death, Turnbull brings a bleeding heart -- of the political and emotional variety -- to the stage and anchors the gripping plot in the raw, fragile, remarkably astute psyche of a writer who has to write to try and understand herself and her family.

As a family drama, "Other Desert Cities" satisfies in glorious ways, but what's even more astonishing about it is the way Baitz uses one family's story to explore the state of American politics, dissecting the things that divide us and astutely examining why that fissure may -- or may not -- ever be healed.

Info: "Other Desert Cities" by Jon Robin Baitz, presented by TheatreWorks at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St. Through Sept. 15 with 7:30 p.m. shows Tuesday-Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $19-$73. Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.


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