Family matters in ‘Other Desert Cities’

Jon Robin Baitz's play at Portland Center Stage is full of family secrets

In Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, playing at Portland Center Stage, a writer comes home for Christmas with a memoir in tow. Brooke’s hoping her parents, Polly and Lyman, will give it their blessing, or maybe just be OK with it, or at least understand how much she needed to write it. The memoir blames her parents for the suicide of her brother.

Even from that short description, which leaves out lots of additional exposition and declarations of love all around, we’re pretty confident that she’s not going to get what she wants for Christmas. And toward the end of the play, even she wakes up enough to label the whole idea a “miscalculation.”

That’s one of the delusions that keeps writers writing, though, the notion that their explanations will be so powerful that they will instantly change the thinking and the emotional weather of their readers. A few minutes with Brooke’s parents, especially Polly, are enough to demonstrate just how powerful that delusion can be. Guess what, Brooke? They aren’t going to take it well.

In "Other Desert Cities," the Wyeth family gathers for Christmas and tennis./Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

In “Other Desert Cities,” the Wyeth family gathers for Christmas and tennis./Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

All of this sound a little predictable, yes? But Baitz (A Fair Country, The Substance of Fire, the TV series Brothers and Sisters) has written a play that has some big surprises in it, too, a nice dollop or two of humor, lots of literate dialogue and sensible arguments, and five characters with a lot on their minds and that suicide I mentioned, in their hearts. And though I don’t agree with director Timothy Bond that it belongs in the same breath with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Death of a Salesman, I still get why it was a critic’s darling when it opened in New York in 2011.

*****

Polly and Lyman are Baitz’s best inventions in Other Desert Cities. Lyman has been a B-film actor (back when there WERE B films), whose specialty was death scenes. He moved on to politics of the Ronald Reagan sort, breezy and self-confident, though he isn’t quite so moralistic about the failings of others as Polly is. He worked for the GOP and was eventually rewarded with an ambassadorship for his good works, even though his son had become involved with an anti-Vietnam War cell that blew up a draft center, accidentally killing someone. That was the explanation for his suicide—grief over what he’d done.

Polly has also worked in Hollywood, as a scriptwriter with her sister Silda, most notably a series of successfully light comedies, and she’s emerged with a steely determination masked by a sharp sense of humor that she uses in the most aggressive possible way. And her political views make Lyman’s outlook seem positively Utopian.

So, yes, Polly and Lyman are modeled on Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who were also their friends in the play, and in Portland Center Stage’s production, they look the part. Barbara Broughton knows her way around pointed repartee and projects the necessary granite constitution for the role. Lyman is smooth and jollier. They are close to perfect for these parts.

Family that negotiates together: Silda, Lyman, Brooke and Polly in "Other Desert Cities."/Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Family that negotiates together: Silda, Lyman, Brooke and Polly in “Other Desert Cities.”/Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

By this time, the timeline is probably confusing: the brother has been dead for more than 30 years. The action takes place in 2004, after the invasion of Iraq. Brooke has published a first novel, then had a nervous breakdown from which she’s just emerging. Her younger brother Trip, who has also made the trip to Palm Springs for the season, has invented a sort of game show that mixes the old Hollywood Squares with Judge Judy—the jury is made up of celebrities—and he’s making a lot of money by not overestimating the intelligence of the TV-viewing public. And Silda is recovering yet again from yet another rehab experience for her alcoholism.

The subject of the memoir dominates their discussions. Polly and Lyman on one side, Silda and Brooke on the other, Trip trying to make it right for both. Naturally, the scabs of previous failings are pecked at until they bleed a little. D’Arcy Dersham plays a very fragile Brooke, always on the verge of a relapse, but at the same time convinced that publishing the memoir is important. Susan Cella’s Silda has great lines and makes a good match for Polly—no one can cut you down quite like a sibling can, now can they? And Joel Reuben Ganz’s self-deprecating Trip does his best to provide a bridge between the warring parties.

Is there another level of character development possible for the cast, another layer of specificity? I thought so, led to that conclusion by the amount of standing around and declaiming onstage. And maybe that’s a function of the size of the stage? It seems like the plains of the Midwest up there somehow in that modernist living room.

*****

D'Arcy Dersham and Joel Reuben Ganz in Portland Center Stage's "Other Desert Cities."/Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

D’Arcy Dersham and Joel Reuben Ganz in Portland Center Stage’s “Other Desert Cities.”/Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

As I watched Other Desert Cities, I thought it concealed some other really interesting plays:

  • A two-hander built around Polly and Silda and the collapse of their screenwriting partnership many years ago.
  • A play that digs into the specifics of a memoir, and Rashomon-like, explores a scene from different perspectives.
  • A comedy that seizes on Trip’s TV show and Lyman’s experience on it as one of the celebs.

I could go on in this imaginary vein, but I’ll stop just to say that it’s a good sign that the material Baitz has collected isn’t exhausted by Other Desert Cities.

*****

So, why isn’t Other Desert Cities in the same league with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or other American classics from the 1950s? I think it’s because it’s too peculiar. How many of us have families in which Sister shows up with a memoir in tow? OK, maybe now more than ever, but still…she isn’t representative in the same way as Willy Loman was in Death of a Salesman or Martha and George were in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Her troubles aren’t of the same order nor so culturally representative, and for her there is hope for resolution.

But I do like its suggestion that the culture hasn’t really learned anything significant from the Vietnam War, other than that a volunteer army is easier to manage than a drafted one, let alone dealt with its psychological cost. And the idea that even the best-acted people, with the hardest facades, conceal secrets that led to the construction of those roles and that armor. Sometimes, Baitz tells us in Other Desert Cities, those secrets are almost impossible to predict.

That’s one of the things that makes Other Desert Cities the enjoyable night of theater that it is, even if you don’t want to reserve its spot in the American canon.

Comments are closed.