Other Desert Cities
Thru Feb 2
615 Texas Ave
In the 2002 film Adaptation, a struggling screenwriter attends a writing seminar by Robert McKee, a real-life guru played in the movie by Brian Cox. After the seminar, the screenwriter takes McKee out for a drink and asks his advice about a script he’s working on. Cigarette in hand, McKee leans in close and delivers a piece of advice. “The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you got a hit.”
Other Desert Cities, now playing at the Alley Theatre, wows them in the end. As always, the Alley’s production, ably directed by Jackson Gay, is slick and professional. But even the bravura finale can’t erase the memory of the preceding two hours of pointless, exhausting bickering between members of the Family From Hell. Jon Robin Baitz’s play opens on the morning of Christmas Eve, 2004, at a suburban ranch-style house in Palm Springs, California. Writer Brooke Wyeth, who lives on Long Island, has returned to her parents’ home for the first time in years, bearing advance copies of her new memoir filled with potentially explosive family secrets. Her parents, Polly and Lyman, are both old-guard country club Republicans who have dined with Nancy Reagan and immediately launch into a spirited defense of the Iraq War, to Brooke’s obvious irritation. Her brother Trip directs a Judge Judy–like courtroom show called Jury of Your Peers, in which B-list celebrities adjudicate small claims suits. Her aunt Silda is an alcoholic invalid whose liberal political opinions endear her to Brooke but make her anathema to her sister Polly, a hectoring harridan played with relish by the excellent Linda Thorson.
The play premiered Off-Broadway in 2011, the year the last American troops left Iraq, so it’s unclear why Baitz decided to set the play at the height of the Iraq War. Obviously, the tragic consequences of the war are still being felt throughout American society, not to mention in Iraq itself, but the play’s multiple references to WMD and various members of the Bush administration seem forced and set up an all-too-easy sparring match between the Republican and Democratic members of the family. Both sides get plenty of opportunities for political grandstanding, but the pro- and anti-war arguments seem dated and a little irrelevant. Wouldn’t it have been more honest to put the Afghanistan War, and President Obama, at the center of the drama? One suspects that this would have muddied the all-too-tidy distinction Baitz works to establish between the saintly protesters and the villainous warmongers. Furthermore, it’s much easier in retrospect to see how specious the pro-war arguments were. Baitz gets cheap laughs by having Polly commend Colin Powell for endorsing the war, ignoring the fact that so did many prominent Democrats.
To put it bluntly, this play doesn’t have characters, it has caricatures. Polly and Lyman rant and rave about gays and drug users destroying the country. (They even, rather incredibly, refer to Chinese food as “chink food.”) Brooke and Silda criticize consumerism, intolerance, and homophobia. Silda tells Brooke “you must fight on. And you will win, because you have ideas, and they only have fear.” Brooke and her brother Trip are spoiled brats who assert their precocity by calling their parents by their first names and smoking a joint in the living room. To give credit where it is due, Baitz does manage by the end of the play to show another side to many of the characters, undercutting the caricatures he established in the first half of the play. But a caricature turned inside out is really just another type of caricature.
As I said, Baitz does pull a rabbit out of his hat at the end of the play, and the audience seemed suitably impressed. But even in the end, Other Desert Cities fails to transcend the genre of television writing in which Baitz has extensive experience and for which he seems best suited.