In Jon Robin Baitz's compelling new play "Other Desert Cities," a powerful but troubled and secretive West Coast political family named the Wyeths is not much at home in the arid, infertile and generally parched deserts of the American West.
This is not Tombstone, Ariz., of course — although Baitz's play deals with a family that has long ago lost a beloved child in circumstances mixed with crime and political anger — but Palm Springs, Calif., a place where two adult offspring have come to visit their parents — once powerful Republicans in a Reaganesque California — and their maverick aunt, played by Judith Light.
As in Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," the people and the land are ill at ease together here.
The main issue in play is that Brooke Wyeth (Rachel Griffiths), an author with a history of depression and being something of a drama queen, has arrived for Christmas to say she plans to publish a book spilling the family secrets about what led to the death of her equally troubled brother. As her less assertive other brother Trip (Thomas Sadoski) — a TV guy who channels his creativity toward the formulaic marketplace and prefers that everyone just gets along — looks on, her father Lyman (played by Stacy Keach) and mother Polly (the withering Stockard Channing) contemplate how decades of well-kept discretion are about to unravel at the hands of their own daughter.
So does Brooke's responsibility to her artistic self trump her moral obligations as a notably dependent member of a family that values privacy above all else?
Like many of the other questions in an upper-middle class play that sits very easily on Broadway — and is exquisitely directed by Joe Mantello — it's an interesting issue to contemplate, and one not unfamiliar to any family with a writer or other artist in its midst. When you get your material at home, your loved ones often get upset. There's also a powerful sense here of the difficulties of having parents far more successful and wired to the establishment than their children will ever be themselves. This is a very good play about the troubles of kids in political families.
One finds some of the planned timings of Brooke's potential published revelations more convenient to the tension-inducing needs of the plot than the realities of the marketplace, but "Other Desert Cities" is so well-written and so carefully laid out in a world both monstrous and remarkable ordinary that is not too bothersome. Baitz has penned a group of highly articulate characters and their three-dimensional encapsulation here is sophisticated — from Sadoski's halting, pained outbursts to Channing's wounding pronouncements to Keach's stoic sadness to Light's quirks, at once charming and lethal.
Griffiths, a star of "Six Feet Under" making her Broadway debut, offers a less expansiveperformance than the Broadway creatures in the rest of the cast, but does not stint from the indulgent persona of a character who feels the need to scream out against a family that has never told the truth, even though her ability to do so was, paradoxically, taught by them. Who else could have done it? All kids going after their parents — or merely disappointing their parents — face that down.
"Other Desert Cities" is playing at Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., New York; tickets at telecharge.com
Twitter @ChrisJonesTribCopyright © 2015, RedEye