Brooke Wyeth, the young author at the center of Jon Robin Baitz’s riveting play “Other Desert Cities,” sometimes catches herself staring for long periods out into the endless desert.
There’s a great deal of family history and pain behind that loaded stare, and Brooke’s attempt to explore it sets off a fusillade of emotional fireworks that I’m willing to bet are still seared into the memories of the audience members who saw the play’s opening in the Kavinoky Theatre last Friday.
Wyeth, played in this fine production by the peerless Kristen Tripp Kelley, has returned to the nicely appointed home of her right-wing parents in Palm Springs to spend the holidays. But she has brought a surprise with her: news that her next book is not a novel, but rather a memoir about her family and a particularly painful period in its history involving her long-deceased older brother.
This does not go over well with her staunchly Republican parents (David Lamb and Barbara Link LaRou), who have struggled since the suicide of their radical leftist son to repair their reputation as modern-day torch-carriers for the Reagan Revolution.
It doesn’t help that Brooke’s 1,000-yard stare – an indication of deep depression hovering on the periphery and threatening to engulf her – runs in the family. Brooke’s father, a former film actor and Republican appartchik, has the same tendency to look off into the desert as if searching for something. But, as we come to find out, it’s motivated by a different and more terrible kind of knowledge.
Her mother, on the other hand, cannot abide weakness in any form – whether it’s the debilitating alcoholism of her free-spirited sister, the sympathetic attitudes of bubble-dwelling liberals like her daughter or the descent of her eldest son into drugs and violence. In the interest of maintaining appearances for her circle of elite friends (among whom she counts Nancy Reagan), the implacable Mrs. Wyeth erects a stony and seemingly impenetrable wall between herself and the people she loves. For most of the play, it seems there is no way she will ever allow anyone to see through it.
That we eventually do says something important about the facades we construct for political purposes, and about how those facades tend to obscure the human hearts beating behind them.
Baitz’s play, unlike far more simplistic living room dramas like Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” is overloaded in the best possible way with emotional and political ammunition. It can be read from a strictly political angle, a strictly emotional one, or any combination of both. It says important things about mental illness, about apathy, about the need for a broader perspective than one was raised with, and about the use of dishonesty as the means to a laudable end – a deeply political notion if ever there was one.
His writing contains an exquisite balance of biting, psychologically driven dialogue and wise humor, all tied together with a keen sense of flow and timing. It’s the sort of smart, Aaron Sorkin-esque writing you can’t quite get enough of, the kind that makes this play’s 150 minutes go by in a flash.
Under the direction of Peter Palmisano, this production powers along toward its stunning and unexpected conclusion with just a few hang-ups along the way. The show belongs, as expected, to Kelley, who presents to us a young author whose deep emotional wounds are visible in practically every mannerism and wistful glance. LaRou, as the force of nature known as Polly Wyeth, comes close to capturing the venom her character requires, while Lamb (who spends about the first 30 seconds of the show fighting off his British accent before resigning himself to it) seems just the slightest bit out of his depth here but in a way that ends up being charming. Matt Witten is disarming and charming as Brooke’s snarky and surprisingly sage younger brother, who offers some of the best quips and insights in the show.
All of this plays out on David King’s extraordinary set, which manages to re-create the glimmering grandeur of the Wyeth Estate from the play’s Broadway production on a much more intimate scale. The Kavinoky’s production of “Other Desert Cities,” a bit shaky on opening night and by now surely steadier on its feet, has to rank among its best.
Three and 1/2 stars
What: “Other Desert Cities”
When: Through Dec. 16
Where: Kavinoky Theatre,320 Porter Ave.
Tickets: $35 to $39