Dallas — If you think your family get-togethers are joyless, bad-tempered forced marches, you need to meet the Wyeths, the rich and fractious tribe in Other Desert Cities, Jon Robin Baitz’s smartly plotted modern family drama at Theatre Three. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012, the play addresses the conflict of parents and siblings, and what happens when artistic honesty conflicts with family loyalty. Jac Alder designed the simple, effective set and directs a seasoned cast in a thought-provoking production that flares with irony and suspense. Who is telling the truth in this family of actors, politicians and writers?
It’s Christmas Eve, 2004, and Brooke Wyeth (a tightly composed Lydia Mackay), a novelist and divorcee with a history of clinical depression, has come from New York after a six-year hiatus to spend Christmas with her wealthy old-guard Republican parents, Polly (an exquisite, diamond-hard Connie Coit) and Lyman (a warmly patriarchal John S. Davies). The couple has retired to Palm Springs from their notable acting and writing careers in Los Angeles. Mom and Dad are friendly with the Reagans, play a decent game of tennis and golf and work at maintaining their Brooks Brothers catalogue style. Also home for the holidays are Brooke’s brother Tripp (a twitchy, touchy Jeff Burleson), a pot-smoking reality TV producer, and her aunt Silda (a willowy and fitfully passionate Cindee Mayfield), a sardonic former screen queen fresh out of rehab and just dying for a whiff of bourbon.
Of course, this volatile crew is a family crisis in the making, although ignition is a little slow. On arrival, Brooke is hugged and lauded for her hard work and forthcoming book. Polly talks of shopping and service games and makes dinner reservations at the country club. Lyman laughs and, on request, reenacts his famed dying scene from his old western films. Then Brooke hauls out the manuscript of her tell-all memoir about the childhood trauma she experienced because of her parents’ callous treatment of her brilliant, damaged left-leaning older brother who apparently killed himself. Nobody speaks of this terrible family secret, which all have smoothed over as if it never happened. But now The New Yorker is about to publish an excerpt of Brooke’s book in January. Before that happens, she wants her family to see that telling this story about her adored lost brother is her only path to overcome her emotional paralysis and a stultifying writer’s block.
At first, Lyman refuses to read her manuscript, Trip begs off and stokes up, and furious Polly dismisses her daughter as part of a generation of mindless “vegans or meth addicts.” The plot and the play heat up appreciably when we learn that Silda has been reading and corroborating the crucial incidents in Brooke’s memoir. We see a flash of touching indecision in Brooke. A suddenly passionate Silda gets a moment alone with her niece, and counters Brooke’s failing resolve to publish the book they both know will humiliate Polly and Lyman. To this point, Mayfield’s Silda has spent most of her recovery engaged in spiteful arguments with her controlling sister Polly. Now her eyes plead and she grips Brooke’s shoulders to lift her up and somehow physically transmit the courage to go through with the book, no matter what. But what can come of such a standoff?
Everybody in the family has a stake in what happens, and when the plot takes a shocking turn, we see how far each will go to protect an image. Can loyalty and honesty prevail among the rich and privileged?
Davies’ Lyman is the most sympathetic character, a calm island in the midst of the controlling, manic and damaged people around him. The women are less attractive. Mackay’s Brooke is a tough cookie. She betrays little of her fragile emotional past until the very end. Clearly, she and her mother are cut from the same stubborn cloth. Coit’s Polly is older and more practiced in her cutting sarcasm, but both women can deliver a wounding barb. Mayfield projects a funny, shabby impotence as the aging alcoholic Silda, but she can throttle up to passionate intensity when threatened. Burleson’s Trip is all smiles and apologies in the beginning, but he has a convincing decisive moment when he reminds his whining sister that she is, in fact, a rich girl, and that their parents have always adored her, although we wonder why.
Believe it or not, Baitz wrangles a fitting ending for these manipulative folks stranded in the desert with each other. Merry Christmas to all.