Other Desert Cities
Written by Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by Joe Mantello
Jon Robin Baitz's bruising, clawing, and haphazard Other Desert Cities
is a lot of Hollywood-liberal bellowing about the intransigence of Bush-era Republicans until it's not—a late twist neuters every theme, nullifies every plot point. Similarly, it's a breezy comedy until suddenly it isn't. Baitz, you could say, is inconsistent. He's a playwright but he also works in television: he wrote for The West Wing
; he created Brothers & Sisters
. I can't say whether television suits his talents or his talents have been corrupted by television, but for its first quarter Other Desert Cities
plays out like a sitcom; it's structured around punch lines, with the audience providing the laugh track. Many of the actors come from TV. One of the characters (Thomas Sadoski, really terrific) is a television producer.
But it's hero is a literary novelist. Rachel Griffiths plays Brooke, a variation on her Six Feet Under
character: an emotionally damaged writer whose troubled relationship with her brother has unbalanced her life. In this case, it's Henry, who has been dead for decades when the play begins in 2006—he's the elephant in the room that no one will let Brooke discuss; hers is a family surviving a tragedy by ignoring it. Brooke, recovering from hospitalizing depression, won't let them ignore it any longer, though: she's written a memoir, soon to be excerpted in The New Yorker
, about her prominent showbiz-turned-politics parents and their eldest son, who belonged to an anti-Vietnam terrorist group.
Good riddance, sitcom trappings! Baitz embraces instead the withering family conflict that constitutes so much Broadway drama. (Judith Light continues to provide comic relief, though, as the scene-stealing crazy old aunt—more Mona than Angela.) Baitz explores several themes: truth's subjectivity; art's power to affect real lives; honesty's devastating effects; family's fragility; the clinically depressed's self-absorption. But his most prominent is the Republican worldview's detrimental impact ever since the culture wars of the 1960s on the American soul. Brooke's book is said to tell the history of modern America by telling the history of her representative family; presumptuously, Baitz implies the same about his play, which also relates the history of this family of old rich white right-wingers desperately trying to retain their power and protect their traditions. "They only have fear," Light tells her niece. "You have ideas." Baitz has ideas, too, I think. But the play's climactic reversal undermines any he expresses.
(Photo: Joan Marcus)