From the early scenes of Other Desert Cities, you'd think it was going to be one of those family dramas in which everyone sits around and talks about their problems and feelings — all of which are supposed to interest you. Then you start thinking that the play's about politics and the sheer, smug awfulness of the hyper-wealthy Reagan Republicans. But as the action unfolds, you come to realize that what you're watching is far more funny, sophisticated, thoughtful and multi-faceted than that. Other Desert Cities intertwines the political and the interpersonal — reflecting powerful social currents through the prism of a specific family while at the same time showing how family dynamics shape history and culture.
The year is 2004, and Brooke, a woman in her forties who's been living in New York and making her living as a writer, visits her retired parents in Palm Springs for Christmas. Her father, Lyman, and mother, Polly, are the kind of old-guard Republicans whom it's now fashionable to call "moderate" — though heaven knows these people were pretty damn radical, even if they weren't Tea Party ravers. Lyman is retired Hollywood royalty, a onetime movie star in the manly Charlton Heston-Clint Eastwood vein who received an ambassadorship from Reagan — he and Polly count Ron and Nancy as dear friends — and became a major party functionary. Polly, for whom the adjective "whip-smart" might have been invented, so slashing are her gibes, is perfectly coiffed, repressed and primarily concerned with status, manners and appearance. She once wrote a popular television series with her sister Silda, and Silda, a recovering drunk, is also on hand for the holidays. As is Brooke's brother, Trip, an inoffensive soul, creator of a reality courtroom show in which minor celebrities serve as jurors.
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The Wyeths' desert home is a study in genteel seclusion, the kind of tastelessly tasteful place where the riffraff — that is, the working class — never appear (the couple doesn't even seem to employ landscapers or cleaning people). They spend their time playing tennis and dining at the country club. Twitchy, neurotic, thoroughly citified, Brooke fits in here like a muddy-pawed mutt scrambling across a beige carpet. Things get even worse when she reveals the reason for her visit: She has written a memoir that will be excerpted in the New Yorker within a couple of months. In it, she has breached family secrets and talked about the suicide of her adored older brother, Henry, an anti-Vietnam War activist who was involved in a bombing in which a man was killed.
All this might sound like made-for-television pap, and playwright Jon Robin Baitz does have a strong background in television. Among other ventures, he created Brothers & Sisters, leaving the show because of artistic disagreements after a year. But nothing Baitz does with this carefully constructed script is simplistic, and none of the characters are two-dimensional. We understand Brooke's contradictory need for both autonomy and her parents' approval. We can also see just how self-pitying and self-involved she is, resenting her mother's iciness while never appreciating the woman's steely protectiveness toward her family. And although she adores her dad, she's pretty obtuse about the pain she's causing him. In this Denver Center Theatre Company production, Kathleen McCall plays Brooke brittle and thin, though there are some moving moments in the second act, and she also seems a little mature for the role. John Patrick Hayden is an excellent Trip, and Tracy Shaffer's Silda is pleasant to watch, but too healthy-seeming for a woman so fragile and overwrought that her very weakness makes her dangerous.
Other Desert Cities
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through April 28, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
Mike Hartman's Lyman is exactly the white-haired lion you expect; he feels like one of those avuncular conservatives whose warmth draws you in, no matter how much you dislike their beliefs. And Lauren Klein is a terrific Polly. The character is one of those oppressive matriarchs we see a lot on stage, but she's also very human, and you can't help admiring her strength of will, no matter how misplaced it is. In one emotional scene, Klein happened to be standing with her back to me, and as the tension built, I swear I was riveted simply by the slow curl of her fingers. In the presence of this vital couple, it's hard to feel as much sympathy for Brooke's predicament as you should.
But with a script this smart and mature, Other Desert Cities makes for an absorbing evening of theater.