Friday, January 6, 2012

Other Desert Cities: Warm & Fuzzy Family

Other Desert Cities, written by Jon Robin Baitz and directed by Joe Mantello, is a thoughtful drama that explores questions of truth in families.  The Wyeth family gathers for Christmas in Palm Springs.  Lyman and Polly Wyeth are former Hollywood stars and Republican old guard.  Their daughter Brooke, recently recovering from a breakdown, announces she has written a memoir about the family.  The substance of the book sends the family into crisis and chaos dredging up a painful chapter in their lives from the past. 

Beneath the surface fights and political debates, the pain in this family is palpable but the reasons for it are not clear (though all is eventually revealed).  There are some terrific actors on display here.  Stockard Channing as the ice queen Polly Wyeth achieves so much with a look, or a single line delivery.  She's the matriarch who holds things together but does so with an iron fist of control.  Judith Light is the often funny, alcoholic aunt who has been the thorn her sister Polly's side for most of her life.  Rachel Griffiths is the daughter demanding truth at all costs. 

I thought Stockard Channing was riveting.  Her character Polly is accused by her sister Silda of pretending to be someone she is not.  Channing manages to give shades of both the character she is and the one she pretends to be.

The material was compelling and you want to know what has happened to these characters.  You want to know how it all came to this, but I struggled with feeling sympathetic toward most of the family.  The most sympathetic character for me was the younger brother (played when I saw it by Thomas Sadowski and soon to be played by Justin Kirk) who has been putting up with all this nonsense for his whole life but he was too young to "remember" the event that set it all in motion.  Brooke was a particularly challenging character to process and connect to. I understood her compulsive need to get to the truth to help her heal but her "shock" that the family would not embrace her activity played false to me.  Her brother calls her on this a bit and I enjoyed when the two of them started dealing with each other more directly and honestly.  Sadowski's performance grew on me.  As the play went on, I could see more clearly the parallels between the children and their parents.  

The play sets up these characters with certain assumptions and then deconstructs those assumptions in the final analysis.  I guess I was less taken with the build up of drama in this story because it felt a little predictable.  I kind of expected one truth grenade to be taken out by someone else's truth bomb.  Part of me thinks I would be most interested in the sequel to this play that follows upon the the big "reveal" at the end.  I want to know how you live with each other after all that's said and done.

That said, I had such a strong reaction to the characters.  There was real artistry to the writing and acting.  But it would not have changed my top 10 for 2011.

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