The sad truth is, with television drama having gotten progressively better and often bolder in the last couple of decades…and the economy and the prevailing production philosophies having done so much to cripple similar boldness in the theatre—if you’ll forgive a sweeping oversimplification—that I frequently find myself these days much happier sitting in front of the tube. And I live for the theatre. Or thought I did.
Which is why I am perhaps overly grateful for the appearance of Other Desert Cities by Jon Ronin Baitz at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center. It made me remember why theatre is what I cling to as a first love. It follows an “old fashioned” theatrical template: a group of characters gather for an occasion, believing one set of truths…but after a time, prolonged contact, some help from booze and light drugs (though in this case only a little) and defenses breached…another set of truths emerges. And there may be another on top of that, a bonus with which Baitz improves on the formula.
But though it’s old fashioned of form, it’s not old fashioned of delivery, unless you want to consider provocative characters, pithily observant dialogue, high emotional stakes and meaty issues old fashioned. And unless you’d likewise brand a fantastic cast with direction to match as fit for mothballs. Because the old format fits the New Millennium just fine.
It’s Christmas 2004 and author Brooke Wyeth (Elizabeth Marvel), a New Yorker in her soul, has returned to the family home in L.A. after a long absence, to celebrate, along with her brother Trip (Thomas Sadowski), a mildly dissolute producer of reality television; and her parents, Brooke (Stockard Channing) and Lyman (Stacy Keach), icons of the right wing, who went from movie stardom to international ambassadorship at the appointment of Ronald Reagan (think John Gavin & Constance Towers as springboard prototypes, though I hasten to add, the Wyeths are not the Gavins in disguise). Also on hand is Brooke’s recovering-alcoholic aunt Silda (Linda Lavin), their candid-tongued political and temperamental opposite.
There is some cause to celebrate too, beyond the holiday—Brooke, in the wake of a first successful novel six years ago, followed by a nervous breakdown that required hospitalization, has found her recovery and, she thinks, her salvation in a new book she has recently finished and sold to Knopf, with advance excerpts to be featured prominently in The New Yorker. Very soon if she doesn’t withhold her consent within a narrow deadline window.
Only this book is not a novel.
It's a memoir.
About the family.
And a dark secret at its center.
And she's hoping for her parents' blessing.
Some big hope.
Among the lovely things about Baitz' storytelling is the freshness he brings to the formula. Usually, as a play like this progresses, the outcome driven toward is that Things Are Not What They Seem On The Surface because of One Horrible Lie desperately maintained by people who are less noble than they pretend to be. But Baitz explores the possibility that pretense can hide an even greater nobility. In any event, he plants the seeds beautifully for a cathartic and moving revelation that I never tweaked to. But it comes with an "Oh, of course!" sough of realization and it's immensely satisfying.
As I say, the performances are all splendid, not merely in their virtuosity, but in the fine detail work; in the best sense, director Joe Mantello has gone above and beyond in pursuit of intimate behavior, the physicality borne of easy familiarity with family, with a living space. It’s so artfully done that it’s not even really something you notice until you just kind of notice the complete unselfconsciousness with which, say, Elizabeth Marvel curls onto the floor to stretch out her legs while talking to her parents…and then suddenly you realize this kind of thing is happening all over, with everybody and with such unremarkable simplicity that it barely even seems a conscious style-choice. Oh, but it is. And it’s almost magical.
Now I won’t tell you that when I returned home, I didn’t thoroughly love the newly downloaded episode of Republic of Doyle as much as any week (that Canadian series, along with the BBC’s Sherlock, was my favorite new show last season); I did indeed. But this time it wasn’t a palate cleanser, after a disappointment, or a revival, or even something perfectly nice that won't stay with me much beyond a year or two, if that. This time it was a chaser, a perfect, sparkling digestif. I started thinking I might explore Baitz’ own TV drama, Brothers and Sisters, thus far unseen by me but perhaps not for long.
When a playwright gives you an evening so extraordinary that you feel compelled to sample his other work…well…it doesn’t often get better than that, folks. It doesn’t often get better…
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