I had the play Other Desert Cities on my list of must-sees, and I finally got around to seeing it this week. It is nominated for several Tony Awards, including Best Play (it won the Drama League Award for Distinguished Play), Best Actress for Stockard Channing and Best Featured Actress for Judith Light, and all are deserving of a win.
The play opens in the Palm Springs home of Polly and Lyman Wyeth (Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach), staunch Republicans who were friends of the Reagans, and parents to Tripp (Thomas Sadoski), who produces a reality show similar to Judge Judy, and Brooke, a writer who hasn't been home in six years.
We learn that Brooke (Elizabeth Marvel) had a major breakdown, and Polly flew east to care for her daughter. Brooke is about to publish a new book: a non-fiction book about her brother Henry. During the Vietnam War, Henry became involved with drugs and a bad group of people who bombed an Army recruiting station where an innocent man was killed. Henry fled the scene for home, where he fought with his parents who turned him away. Then he killed himself by leaping off a ferry.
That is what Brooke's book is about; how her parents turned their backs on their young son and drove him to suicide. Brooke's parents are horrified that she is dredging up the most painful time in their lives for public consumption; and they see things differently.
Polly's sister Silda (Judith Light) is an alcoholic who used to write silly screenplays with Polly. She has failed at rehab and Polly and Lyman have taken her in. Silda hates Polly and Lyman's politics and she secretly helped Brooke with her book.
The fireworks fly when Polly is finally allowed to read Brooke's book. I liked that the author takes issue with the memoir phenomenon, showing that how people remember things that happened in the past aren't necessarily the way that they actually happened. People's perspectives affect memory and sometimes they don't have all the facts.
The character of Polly could have been a stereotype, the cold bitch of a mother, but in the skilled hands of Channing, you see from the very beginning she is not. She loves her family, and when the chips are down, they turn to her (Brooke and Silda) and she is there for them.
While the women have gotten the lion's share of attention for this play, the men Lyman and Tripp both have explosive speeches that are powerfully performed. These WASP-y men show the build-up of emotions they have been carrying around with them.
The end of the play has some major fireworks and some confessions that rock all of the characters. When a major revelation takes place, you could hear a pin drop in the theater, and at the end, the audience was almost as emotionally spent as the characters.
The only criticism I have is that the age of the characters didn't seem to work out for me; it takes place during the Iraq War, but Henry and Brooke were older teens during the Vietnam War. Brooke seems to young for that and it would make Tripp nearly 40, which didn't seem possible.
Other Desert Cities is a brilliant American play about family, love, loyalty and politics by John Rabin Baitz, and stunningly performed by the five actors. Go see it before it closes on June 17th; it is a theatrical experience not to be missed. I got my tickets for half-price at TKTS,but this is a play well worth paying full-price.