Other Desert Cities
A play about the secrets we keep and the repercussions they cause is the theme at the heart of Jon Robin Baitz’ hit play "Other Desert Cities." Referring to the road sign at the outskirts of Palm Springs that lets you know you could either stop in Palm Springs or keep going, here we have the reunion of two adult children and their very particular parents who are in the desert for the Christmas holiday.
Mom Polly (JoBeth Williams) is a somewhat uptight and superior lady who has been close to many of the GOP elite including Nancy Reagan and all sorts of political figures of note. Her husband Lymann (Robert Foxworth) is an ex-movie star who turned to politics when his partisan leanings became more important than pretending to die in a movie gun-fight.
Their son Trip (Michael Weston) is a successful reality television producer in Los Angeles who seems to have himself together despite still being single and having to suffer his parents more often that his East Coast sister, Brooke (Robin Weigert). She is the unspoken black-sheep of the family.
Having left the confines of Southern California for Long Island, she has been prone to bad relationships and bouts of depression. A fruitful novelist, she has spent the last six years writing a memoir about her late brother Henry who, as the story goes, leaned so far left he became involved in a political demonstration that left three people dead. He then killed himself.
Being close to her brother, Brooke struggled with this information, blaming much on her conservative parents and hopelessly trying to understand it all. With the completion of the book, her parents are on pins and needles fearing what the book might reveal. In fact, they don’t even know the subject matter...yet.
Taking place on Christmas Eve day and night, "Other Desert Cities" begins a bit awkwardly as the trappings of plays often do. There is stilted dialogue as exposition needs to be laid out for the audience, and here the actors seemed to be a bit over-expressive as to be unrealistic. This habit dies down by the middle of Act One and the dynamics of the key players are established.
The family has a complicated history and it all comes out over the course of the day, mostly through traded barbs and shared memories. The problems really occur once Brooke brings out two copies of her manuscript for the family to read. The family includes Polly’s sister Silda (Jeannie Berlin) a (once-again) recovering alcoholic who is staying with Polly until she is able to control her disease enough to live on her own.
Once the cast settles into their roles, the sharp writing by Baitz becomes more on point and the revelations come fast and deep. It all builds to a pretty emotional climax where everything Brooke knew is turned on its head. It’s a telling scene and Weigert plays this in a way not often shown. It’s a raw moment for sure as the devastation runs through more aspects of her life than one would first expect.
Director Robert Egan keeps the action going even though the lovely creation of their Palm Springs home by Takeshi Kata is in a limited space. The actors move about it naturally and again, as the play progresses, the actors grow more comfortable in their new skins.
I’ll admit, I still had questions when it was all said and done, but even within that there was a sense of completion to the story. It ends on a relatively upbeat note so we don’t walk out feeling gloomy. Which is good for an ultimately serious play that takes place on Christmas. The last thing I need is to go back out into our holiday decked-out world and feel blue. More so, I just felt for Brooke Wyeth and her suffering.
It’s a thought-provoking tale that makes you look at your own life to see what secrets you’ve kept, and how those secrets, untruths, or avoidances might have truly affected another person. And it shows that even when you think you are doing the right thing... sometimes it’s better to just be honest. At least to those you love. If not, you might as well follow the sign and move on to other desert cities.