Jon Robin Baitz

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.

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