You can’t choose your family, but you can choose how you deal with the one you are given. Sometimes, you make the wrong choices. The Wyeths, of Jon Robin Baitz’s new political family drama “Other Desert Cities” directed by Henry Wishcamper, happen to be a clan particularly skilled in the art of disagreement.
Lyman and Polly Wyeth (Chelcie Ross and Deanna Dunagan respectively), a retired couple with Hollywood connections and staunchly conservative political views find themselves holding a family reunion on Christmas Eve, 2004, which lacks any semblance of holiday cheer or any other form of joy. Joining them at their deceptively cheery-looking Palm Springs home are their two children, Brooke (Tracy Michelle Arnold) and Trip (John Hoogenakker), as well as Polly’s troublemaking sister Silda (Linda Kimbrough). All of this gloom and doom contrasts beautifully with Thomas Lynch’s superbly executed set of the Wyeth’s modern ranch-style abode.
The simmering tension between family members, particularly between Polly and and her recovering alcoholic sister is brought to a rolling boil when Brooke, an author, presents the manuscript of her latest book—a tell-all memoir detailing the dirtiest secrets of the Wyeth family—including the story of her late older brother Henry, the shame of her parents, with the help of her wayward aunt.
The greatest issue I took with the play was not the politics or the story, but Brooke’s character. For a jaded woman well into adulthood, she acts a bit too much like a 5-year-old who hasn’t gotten her way to be believable or tolerable. While this can mainly be attributed to how Baitz wrote her character, Arnold’s portrayal did nothing to minimize these grating qualities. Luckily her brother Trip, the sharp-witted voice of reason portrayed brilliantly by Hoogenakker, serves as an ideal balance to Brooke’s melodrama.
The true standout performance, however, is Ross as Lyman, the tired family patriarch who values both his reputation and his daughter enough to feel conflicted over what should be done with Brooke’s manuscript. He might not be the funniest, but he is the only one whose humor remains consistently good-natured. In both character and portrayal, Lyman gives “Other Desert Cities” much-needed depth and heart.
In addition to being a dramatic play about familial relationships, “Other Desert Cities” is political commentary, both in what has happened recently and on events more than 30 years in the past. As a child of the 90s I can honestly say that all I know about the majority of the events referenced in the show I learned from textbooks or my parents’ stories. While this didn’t negatively affect my experience watching the show, I feel that it would be an added bonus for those who lived through the events themselves.
Although it is dialogue-heavy, the expressive and dynamic banter between the members of the Wyeth family is enough to keep “Other Desert Cities” interesting despite its running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes. The show runs through February 17 at the Goodman Theatre.