Monday, December 12, 2011

Grandstanding: Other Desert Cities

Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach in Other Desert Cities (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Jon Robin Baitz’s critically acclaimed new Broadway play Other Desert Cities is an American family drama with an eleventh-hour revelation. Structurally and generically it harks back to the Victorian-era well-made plays that Ibsen and Chekhov each took a hand in sabotaging but that survived nonetheless into the twentieth century, where they furnished a model for American playwrights like Arthur Miller (who added a Freudian element) and later a blueprint for TV serials. Baitz must think he’s creating something new because he’s stocked his play with political content, but it’s a screechy, grandstanding melodrama in which every hinge creaks.

The setting is Palm Springs, where Polly and Lyman Wyeth’s two grown-up children have come out to spend Christmas with them. Lyman (Stacy Keach) is a retired ambassador and he and Polly are still conspicuously active in Republican circles. (Polly is played by Stockard Channing, but I saw her understudy, Lauren Klein.) Before they entered politics both Wyeths had Hollywood lives, Lyman as a handsome leading man while Polly and her sister Silda (Judith Light), transplanted Texas girls, wrote a series of popular detective movies. The team split up when the two sisters stopped getting along well enough to collaborate, and their animosity is more apparent than ever now that Silda, a recovering alcoholic, has moved in with Polly and Lyman. Their son Trip (Thomas Sadoski) produces a TV show called Jury of Your Peers in which the jury is made up of celebrities. Their daughter Brooke (Rachel Griffiths) is a journalist who has just completed a manuscript. When the family is assembled she announces that it’s a memoir about the family, centered on the tragedy they’ve never recovered from: during Vietnam their eldest, Henry, became involved with a radical anti-war group that bombed a recruitment center, killing a homeless man, and out of guilt and despair Henry drowned himself. Brooke has never forgiven her parents for turning their coming-apart son away when he sought their help after the bombing, nor has she recovered, after all these years, from the feeling that Henry, her hero, abandoned her when she was a little girl, not even leaving a note for her when he chose to take his life. This event which almost destroyed her family haunted her into her shaky adulthood – she’s had a breakdown and spent some time in a psychiatric hospital. In researching the book she’s used her aunt as a resource. Silda has her own axe to grind: her fury that her sister and brother-in-law’s fervent loyalty to the GOP cause prompted them to see their own son, whom they struggled to bring up in their political image, as a traitor for defecting to the left wing.

Rachel Griffiths & Judith Light
Can we start with those damn names? Lyman, Silda, Trip: what playwright gives his characters monikers like these? (John Guare applied comparable ones to the WASP aristocrats in Six Degrees of Separation, but he was being satirical.) The Wyeths, by the way, aren’t descendants of the famous painter; they’re secular Jews who joke about going to the country club on Christmas. They don’t seem remotely Jewish, not even assimilated Jewish, which may partly be because Baitz’s model for the relationship between the sisters is transparently the one in Edward Albee’s absurdist comedy of manners, A Delicate Balance. (Light plays Silda the way Elaine Stritch played the hard-boiled alcoholic sibling in Gerald Gutierrez’s revival of the Albee play on Broadway in the mid-nineties, but with considerably less success because Baitz has made her insufferably self-righteous. That choice kills any pleasure you might have taken in the zingers she keeps slinging at Polly and Lyman.)

The subject of the way in which the sixties cracked the American family in two is a great one, as Philip Roth showed in his novel American Pastoral, but Baitz isn’t thinking here in human terms. The characters don’t even talk like human beings; they give position papers. And though Baitz must think the surprise at the end of the second act, when we find out what really happened to Henry, proves he’s fair-minded, the liberal position is presented with so much more conviction that the Republican couple comes across as little better than caricatures. Possibly Channing, one of the great stage actresses of our time, transcends the writing of her role (Klein didn’t, but it wasn’t her fault); though Keach gives, for the most part, an admirably restrained performance, he can’t manage it. In this play, when the liberals speak, their words seem to carry the imprimatur of the playwright – no matter how self-absorbed Brooke is, no matter what mistakes Silda has made, and whatever the upending of the story line tries to tell us about the more compassionate impulses of the right-wing parents. But then, nothing in the play rings remotely true. Silda accuses her sister and brother-in-law of being such true believers that they could sacrifice their own son to their paranoia about the liberals changing the landscape of the country during the Vietnam War years. But she also accuses them of cowardice and careerism. Trip tells his sister off for being selfish and self-absorbed, a reasonable point of view even coming from a young man who barely seems to acknowledge that there’s any world outside his high-end lifestyle. But he also declares that Love and Mercy: A Memoir is the finest writing Brooke has ever done. (God, I hope not: the excerpt Baitz shares with us is painfully banal.)

Baitz obviously believes that a group of people hurling lines at each other that you can’t imagine coming out of any real person’s mouth is political drama. Political drama is tough to pull off, but playwrights have done it. Last season Playwrights Horizons mounted a small-scale by Amy Herzog called After the Revolution about a young lawyer from a Jewish socialist family who starts a foundation for defending those whose politics have made it impossible for them to received unbiased treatment from the justice system. She names the foundation after her late grandfather, a family hero who was blacklisted during the McCarthy period; then she learns that he was in fact a Soviet spy. After the Revolution has its flaws (notably the underwriting of the idealistic young protagonist), but it’s an honest piece of work in which the ending is unresolved -- not because the playwright comes up with a twist that contradicts the rest of the play but because she presents a knot that, given the bone-deep predilections of the characters, simply can’t be untied. And Herzog’s characters interact out of their love for one another and their political beliefs, which sometimes contradict one another; they don’t just shout at each other.

Rachel Griffiths & Thomas Sadoski (Photo: Joan Marcus)
The actors in Other Desert Cities do a hell of a lot of shouting. Joe Mantello’s direction amounts to license for them to take the floor as if they were filibustering, though there’s also a goodly amount of weeping – especially by Rachel Griffiths, who gives an embarrassing performance. Sadoski’s approach, in the role of the cooled-out L.A. kid brother, is to put quotation marks around all of his lines; his delivery is undeniably clever and he gets his laughs, but there’s no emotional truth to line readings that are purely ironic. He’s just as much a showboater as Griffith or Light. Baitz wants us to see through Trip’s hip veneer: he gives this character the play’s message: “All that will have mattered on earth is how you have loved.” I’m not sure which is phonier – Trip’s affect or the heart-tugging sincerity underneath.

The audience greeted the matinee performance I attended with wild enthusiasm. (They even cheered Stacy Keach’s exit after his one yelled speech, the only fake moment in his performance.) You can’t blame them: the play keeps telling you how important it is and the actors pander to the nineteenth-century misperception that declaiming is the same as acting, which you’d think a century of Stanislavski might have blotted out for good. The collaborators on this project I wanted to applaud were John Lee Beatty, who designed the set, and especially David Zinn, whose costumes suggest that it might, after all, be possible to view these characters as human beings.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed your review. Also enjoyed the play in Seattle. Contradiction? It seemed to me that Baitz was sending up both left and right (yes, the actors did make speeches). The right gets honked by the excesses of the parents' dedication to Reagan, Nancy (she of the horoscopes) especially. But then they reveal that it was all an act to cover their son's fake suicide and keep the feds off his track. The left (daughter) is held up as naive and silly in light of this. The residual, even with all the stilted speeches, that I got was of parents loving their son, enduring a life of charades to keep him alive. The most authentic (maybe only authentic) lines were of the parents getting those wordless phone calls.
    Bill Fischel