“Other Desert Cities,” a play by Jon Robin Baitz, opened on Friday at Theatre Palisades. It instantly draws audience members into the secrets of the Wyeth family.
The play is entertaining, the acting excellent and the set perfect. The complexity of the play and the relationship between parents and adult children resonate long after the curtain drops.
In every family, incidents are remembered differently, depending on which family member is doing the telling. What is the truth – and if someone from the outside were looking in, how would they interpret it?
Brooke Wyeth (Holly Sidell), a liberal-leaning published writer who has suffered depression and been hospitalized, has rebounded. She has written a memoir and received a publishing deal. Her first book was written years earlier, but other than travel articles, she hasn’t written another.
Sidell’s intensity, and her need to know the truth, as she sorts through her past, centers the play and the other characters.
Brooke visits her parents, Lyman and Polly Wyeth, who live in the Palm Desert on Christmas Eve 2004 with the book. She is seeking approval from them before it is published.
The memoir details her relationship with her brother Henry, who in his youth, was part of a radical movement, based in Venice, California. The group bombed an Army recruitment center, accidentally killing a janitor. Then, Henry committed suicide.
In her telling of the past, Brooke accuses her parents, who are conservatives, of driving her brother into radical politics. She feels they are responsible for his death, and she faults them, still, because they will not talk about her brother or the incident.
Her dad Lyman (Richard Johnson) is a former U.S. ambassador, appointed by Ronald Reagan. Like Reagan, Lyman began his career as a Hollywood actor, where he met his wife, the feisty Polly (Michele Schultz), who was working as a screenwriter.
Johnson is excellent as “ex-actor,” who tries to use his “ambassador skills” to mediate a solution.
Polly and her sister Silda (Amy Goddard) had written a series of successful comedies for MGM in the 1960s. But when Polly married Lyman, Silda lost her partner and her career stalled.
Schultz is a force to be reckoned with, and the actress drives the play with her energy. The powerful dynamic between she and Goddard, who also has tremendous stage presence, fuels the sister’s interaction.
An adult son (Levente Tarr) is used as a pawn by family members, to support their points of views. Tarr, as a womanizing, reality TV show producer, handles his role with the right amount of careful detachment and frustration.
The family is split politically between liberal and conservatives – which makes this piece still relevant today. This play was set during the Iraq War (2003-2011). President George W. Bush begun a military operation in Iraq — the dictator Saddam is deposed and executed. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld resigned over criticism of the conduct of the war. Evidence or prisoner abuse inside the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison become public. This is not a political play, but it is interesting that the furor between conservative and liberals still resonates today.
The play takes a nice and hopeful twist at the end – not everything is at it seems.
This is one of the strongest casts in recent history at the Pierson Playhouse. The play is directed by Chloe King and produced by Martha Hunter and Laura Goldstein. The set design by Sherman Wayne, captures perfectly a Palm Desert living room—and the two-level set, complete with a giant Christmas Tree makes the intimate stage seem expansive.
This play premiered at New York’s Mitizi E. Newhouse Theater in 2010 and transferred to Broadway in November 2011. It was named Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play by the Outer Critics Circle. It received five Tony nominations, including for Best Play. Other Desert Cities was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
It will run through February 18, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Visit: theatreplaisdes.org or call (310) 454-1970.