Got everyone but Keach
For my birthday, José got us tickets to Other Desert Cities, the brilliant Jon Robin Baitz play directed by Joe Mantello and starring Stockard Channing, Judith Light, Stacy Keach, Rachel Griffiths and Justin Kirk. As part of the gift, I made him be my assistant fanboy at the stage door, something I've only done three or four times ever.
The show bubbles to the top of the genre of shows featuring cerebral families who sit around saying profound things as opposed to making banal chit-chat and watching reality TV thanks to searing, complex performances and a timely subtext involving conservatism.
Lyman and Polly Wyeth (Keach and Channing) are former Hollywood folks who, like the Reagans (a lot like the Reagans) have listed to the right in their old age. Decades ago, their eldest son committed suicide after getting mixed up with war protesters who detonated a bomb, killing a man. In 2004, their damaged daughter Brooke (Griffiths), home for the holidays along with her brother Trip (Kirk), has dropped a bomb of her own, announcing she's written a scathing family memoir that's about to be published in New York. Polly's lefty sister Silda (Light), who recently fell off the wagon, is staying with the Wyeths during this, their darkest hour—and there's nothing more dangerous than a smart, fearless drunk.
Other Desert Cities (the title refers to a road sign near Palm Springs but could also refer to the places in Iraq that were being bombed back to the Stone Age at the time) definitely chooses sides when it comes to references to weapons of mass destruction and Colin Powell's questionable integrity, but while Channing's Polly is emotionally relentless, she's written with wonderful shades and at play's end will be someone any audience can understand. That she doesn't remain a nightmarish lady who lunches is a credit to the writing and to Channing, who's got to be on the verge of a Tony for her gutsy, beautifully modulated performance; it's really more of a slow reveal.
Light is every bit her equal, trading barbs that are wickedly delicious but that obviously come from a long-lost place of love. "How do you love someone who became someone else?" Silda asks her distant, demanding sibling, but Polly might ask the same of Silda, whose alcoholism has undoubtedly changed her even if she herself can't see it.
At times, watching Rachel Griffiths called to mind seeing her in Brothers & Sisters, but of course she is channeling Patti Davis, who really did write a (much less devastating, but still disloyal) book that revealed uncomfortable Reagan-family secrets. In spite of those easy-sounding references, her Brooke is a bundle of raw nerves, achingly sensitive without being—contrary to her mother's declaration—another "whiny liberal."
Kirk, in his very first night in the show, was terrific as Trip, a voice of reason as wounded as anyone in this family drama even though he was only five when his big brother went nuts and ruined their lives. Stacy Keach is perfectly cast as a big-screen tough guy who moved on to being a GOP county chair. He's so charming it's hard not to like him regardless of whether you agree with his politics, and yet his relationship (and his pact of secrecy) with his wife make him as complicit as anyone in the intricacies of why the Wyeths are as dysfunctional as they are.
This is not to say Other Desert Cities is a tough slog; in fact, it has many laughs and leaves you with hope. Hell, it's a smart play that gives Stockard Channing and Judith Light the roles of their careers, already more than I could have hoped for.