22 March 2012

Baitz’s ‘Other Desert Cities’

Welcome to Palm Springs:
Judith Light, Elizabeth Marvel, Justin Kirk, Stacy Keach,
and Lauren Klein.

Illustration by WVM

The people in Jon Robin Baitz’s plays are different from you and me: they have more money. And partly for that reason, these characters cope with the sorts of troubles that you and I aren’t likely to face. The same is true of Hamlet, of course, to which the characters in Baitz’s new-ish play, Other Desert Cities allude at one point, and in his own way, Baitz upholds the Aristotelian virtues.

And yet, if you come away from Other Desert Cities with any sort of catharsis, it will be despite the fancy trappings with which Baitz has burdened his story, despite the wealth and privilege of his characters, and most certainly despite the utterly incoherent political analysis that he forces upon us. However, if you leave out the politics, you’re left with a very old-fashioned play. Baitz boxes himself in: he has no choice but to aim for the appearance of higher purpose.

It’s in his very conventionality, and where Baitz is least ambitious, that he succeeds best here: Other Desert Cities is about secret-keeping and truth-telling in families, and in his exceptional Wyeth family, I could see some ordinary Madisons, much as the playwright must have intended.

With Hollywood careers (Lyman was an actor, Polly a screenwriter) and an ambassadorship (rather like John Gavin’s posting to Mexico) behind them, the Wyeths reside in tasteful comfort in Palm Springs, which, the playbill notes helpfully, is in California. Even the Christmas tree is color-coordinated to match the furniture. The Wyeths are major boosters of the Republican Party, avidly patterning themselves after their friends “Ronny and Nancy,” but lately most of their attention has been focused on caring for their depressive daughter, Brooke, and for Polly’s alcoholic sister (and former writing partner), Silda.

None of the family can make it through the day without a little chemical boost of some sort, as it happens. Both Lyman and Polly knock back the high balls and sneak cigarettes, and their son Trip has brought a bag of marijuana home for Christmas. But there’s no buffer and no place to hide when Brooke announces that she’s written a book about the central crisis in her family’s lives. (An excerpt is scheduled to appear in The New Yorker within weeks, she tells her parents — again, not a problem that you and I are likely to share.)

Confronted with the exposure of their most painful secrets, Lyman blusters and roars and pleads, while Polly turns almost inhumanly cold. She’s always taken her cues from Nancy Reagan, she explains, believing that the public image must be carefully controlled.

Stacy Keach as Lyman Wyeth:
Is there a pun here? Lie-man?

But what is Baitz really trying to say about Republicans? The Kennedy White House was at least as image-conscious as the Reagans. And perhaps I’m on the wrong side of the aisle to see properly, but I don’t recall when the modern Conservative Movement sacrificed and went out of its way to care for the neediest, the way Lyman and Polly thanklessly bend over backward for Brooke and Silda. Do Republicans have secrets? Who doesn’t? It’s the universality of family secret-keeping that makes this play worthwhile.

Even Baitz’s time frame is off: setting the play in 2004 places us at the height of “homeland security” concerns and liberal impotence, but it also means that the characters, especially the Wyeth children, simply aren’t old enough for that long-ago secret, a sort of Vietnam War protest gone terribly wrong. Baitz surely felt the need to make his play more important by raising political themes, but he’s no Tony Kushner. His thinking is muddled and his expression worse. None of it makes sense, and you walk out of the theater angry at such clumsy attempts at manipulation.

Somehow the personal story is effective, though, and it’s honey for actors. Joe Mantello’s production, under the aegis of Lincoln Center Theater, has been running for a while, and at the performance I attended this week, Stockard Channing’s understudy, Lauren Klein, took the role of Polly. Frankly, I’m delighted to discover Klein, who brilliantly manages her character’s Texas accent and acerbic wit. Petite and poised, she makes an excellent foil for Stacy Keach’s titanic Lyman, a great bear both in his outsized affections and in his anger. (In one outburst at the Wednesday matinée, Keach actually broke a lamp onstage — and no, that wasn’t part of the script. No wonder this actor loves theater!) Polly is the ice queen of the desert sands, but I honestly can’t imagine how Channing — with her patented WASPy, East Coast sophistication — could pull off this character nearly so well as Klein does.

Judith Light:
Golly, she’s thin!

As Silda, Judith Light gets most of the laughs, and there’s something self-consciously stagy about the character: Silda knows she’s delivering lines. It’s when Light is listening to the other actors that you get a sense of the real Silda. She really is marvelous, and it’s a treat to see her now that Ugly Betty has given me a clearer idea of her talent. Though Trip has little to do but try to stay out of the others’ way, Justin Kirk was pleasing and believable as always; he’s grown comfortably into his beauty and his stoner drawl. (Seriously, how many actors his age have such distinctive speaking patterns?)

For this audience, Elizabeth Marvel was the weak link. Though it’s to be remembered that she’s got the rangiest, most difficult role in a remarkably talky play, I seldom felt Marvel was deeply connected to the character’s emotions. When Brooke wonders aloud why she expected her parents to cheer her decision to air their dirty laundry in The New Yorker, I didn’t get the feeling that Marvel knew the answer. It’s the hook on which Baitz hangs his play, which is not to say that he knows the answer, either. But regardless of the playwright’s inexplicable contrivances, it’s the actor’s job to make choices. Too often, Marvel simply flailed.

Justin Kirk as Trip

Other Desert Cities has been playing a while, as I say, and the production enjoys an excellent reputation, both by word of mouth and in the press, and for the most part deservedly so. At Wednesday’s matinée, I was surrounded by literal busloads of theater parties — who kindly stopped texting during the play when I asked them. (We live in an age of miracles.)

Baitz is the rare playwright of my generation to know such success, and yet his work, like Aaron Sorkin’s, makes me wonder whether high gloss doesn’t cover over a limited imagination and narrow artistic ambition. If I ever set out to write a play, I may aim a little lower as a result.

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