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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
OTHER DESERT CITIES
at the Booth

HOLIDAY CHEER
By JOANNE KAUFMAN

  Rachel Griffiths and Stockard Channing/ Ph: Joan Marcus

It’s great, isn’t it, to have the family all together for Christmas? Really, what could be better than gathering ‘round the tree with the ones you love, drinking some holiday cheer, reminiscing, opening presents – and opening old wounds. And so to the Wyeths, the troubled family at the center of Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, an often sharply written throwback to the conventional Broadway dramas of the 50s.

The setting for making merry and making believe is the Palm Springs house of the senior Wyeths, Lyman (Stacy Keach) and Polly (Stockard Channing, wonderful). He’s a movie star turned politician and ambassador, full of jaunty tales about Hollywood. She’s a one-time screenwriter and old-line conservative who’s a wife right out of the Nancy Reagan playbook. (Nancy, in fact, is a pal. So are Betsy Bloomingdale and George H.W. Bush. Their photos are on the wall and everything.) Polly is the sort who can tell you exactly what’s wrong with kids today: They’re “either vegans or meth addicts or both at the same time.” This attitude may explain why her own offspring is less than enthusiastic about coming home for the holidays.

But it’s Christmas Eve 2004, and here they are, Trip (wonderfully played by Thomas Sadoski), a wry, determinedly good-natured television producer, and his older sister Brooke (Rachel Griffiths), a novelist emerging ever so shakily from a nervous breakdown and at odds with her folks about politics and everything else. Rounding out the family circle is Polly’s sister and former writing partner Silda (Judith Light), who’s fresh out of rehab and is now substituting zingers for stingers. “I’m going to have to learn to deal with you now that I’m sober,” she tells Polly.

The day’s activities include tennis (game, set and match: Polly), some last-minute Christmas shopping and a buffet at the country club. But the dinner plans are scuttled when Brooke announces to her horrified parents that she’s written a no-holds-barred memoir about her beloved older brother Henry, a 70s radical who committed suicide after taking part in a fatal bombing at a military recruiting station. Spoiler alert: Mother and Father Wyeth do not come off well in the story.

Other Desert Cities, which had a limited run earlier this year at Lincoln Center, is undermined far less by the contrived soap opera-worthy plot twist at the end of the second act than by Griffiths’ performance in a role played by Elizabeth Marvel in the LCT production. 

The rest of the cast doesn’t allow us to fix a single adjective on their characters. Channing, Sadoski, et al are, by turns, funny, infuriating, shameful, self-deluded, compassionate, clueless, loving, brave. We don’t know from minute to minute where to put our loyalty – a good thing. But for sure we’re not siding with Griffiths, whose performance is stuck in one gear: spoiled, self-pitying child. (The fault lies not in the script but in our star.) She wreaks havoc on her family; the monotony of her approach and her inability to engage audience sympathy do similar damage to Other Desert Cities.

 


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