Jon Robin Baitz’s Tony- and Pulitzer-nominated Other Desert Cities is a clunky thing – a fairly rote living room drama where the witty repartee naturally gives way to screaming hysterics and the especially schematic political characterizations do nothing to illuminate the alleged humans they belong to. There are moments of emotional clarity and stinging rebuke, but for every distinctive, acid-soaked line of dialogue, there are three more that are overly expositional or awkwardly halting or just plain flat. And yet, ACT Theatre’s production is something close to a must-see thanks to stellar performances in a smart staging by director Victor Pappas.
Set in 2004, the Christmas after George W. was re-elected, Other Desert Cities feels overly self-conscious of its period setting, making sure to remind us when we are with lines like “People flew planes into buildings,” verisimilitude be damned. Politics isn’t subtext in this play; it is the text for large swaths, even if its insights don’t penetrate much deeper than “Mom and Dad are old-school conservatives; daughter is an East Coast liberal. Can you believe these guys don’t see eye-to-eye?!” Polly and Lyman Wyeth (Pamela Reed, Kevin Tighe) are ex-Hollywood types, friends of Nancy and Ronnie and refugees in Palm Springs, where they retreated in the wake of a very public family tragedy. Visiting for the holidays are kids Brooke and Trip (Marya Sea Kaminski, Aaron Blakely), she an erstwhile novelist, he a producer of trash TV.
Sparks fly over ideological differences, but things are generally congenial until Brooke announces that her long-awaited sophomore novel isn’t a novel at all – it’s a work of nonfiction centered on that family tragedy that left an older brother dead amid accusations of terrorism and Polly and Lyman humiliated and heartbroken. Brooke insists it’s not a hit piece on her parents, but she also knows she’s unlikely to get their blessing. Her printed-out pages turn a Christmas Eve celebration into a marathon reading session.
Ultimately, Other Desert Cities sacrifices further investigation of its potentially fascinating characters for a late-inning narrative twist and a pat epilogue that’s more silly than profound. Nonetheless, I would gladly see ACT’s staging again to witness the extraordinary Reed play the quietly terrifying Polly Wyeth, like an equally pragmatic and sly T.J. Cavanaugh (Reed’s character in Robert Altman’s Tanner ’88) if her political views had done a complete reversal over the past two decades. Making the most of a thin part and providing nearly all the genuine laughs is the feisty Lori Larsen as Polly’s sister Silda, a perennial alcoholic spending her latest dry-out as the Wyeth’s houseguest.
As the Wyeth men, both Tighe and Blakely succeed at creating portraits of well-meaning, but emotionally impotent people, preferring to focus on reminiscence or stimulating distractions instead of the issues right in front of their faces. Kaminski probably has the most difficult role as the deeply wounded Brooke, the center around which the emotional turmoil swirls. Her energetic performance sometimes feels a little out-of-step with the rest of the cast, although as the black sheep of the family, it’s not a bad choice.
Handsome costume design by Frances Kenny and the appropriately stuffy scenic design by Robert Dahlstrom contribute to a top-notch production of a play I wish I liked better. Other Desert Cities is on stage at ACT through June 30. Tickets are available online.