It’s Christmas Eve at Lyman and Polly Wyeth’s Palm Springs home, and it’s about as merry as a dust storm. Daughter Brooke has come home for the first time in six years with quite a present for the folks: a soon-to-be-published memoir that will reopen the lid clamped down on a dark family tragedy and, as Lyman and Polly see it, make them headliners in the tabloid press.
Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, on stage at the Old Globe, is a clenched-teeth family drama swathed in political overtones. It’s set in 2004, shortly after Dubya’s re-election, and right-wing Lyman (Robert Foxworth) and Polly (Kandis Chappell) are at odds with “lefty” Brooke (Dana Green) on a philosophical basis even before she raises the subject of her new book. As such, there’s a lot of sociopolitical rhetoric flying from both sides, little of which we haven’t heard before. The unrelenting tension in the Wyeth living room (a masterful Palm Springs set conceived by Alexander Dodge) between a tormented father, an angry, disillusioned mother and a daughter in the throes of passion and pain is what makes Other Desert Cities the rich theatrical experience that it is. Foxworth inhabits every bit of Lyman’s steeliness and charisma (he’s an ex-movie star turned politician) and even without speaking he compels our attention, as when he brushes away Brooke’s conciliatory embrace.
On hand for mostly comic relief are the obviously named brother Trip (Andy Bean), who produces a cheesy reality-TV show and breaks out the stash of pot, and Polly’s wise-cracking sister Silda (Robin Pearson Rose). Each gets moments of gravitas and implied wisdom as to the family crisis, but Other Desert Cities is at heart about Lyman, Polly, Brooke and the specter of Henry, the radical son who, after implication in a bombing, evidently committed suicide.
The Act 2 revelations are not as surprising as intended, but we are consumed by this scarred family’s eruptions and catharses. The entire cast is in top form, and director Richard Seers does not allow the proceedings to dissolve into yet another dysfunctional family story. Playwright Baitz understood the political as well as personal ramifications of the Wyeths’ plight, and so do we.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.