AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by Richard Seer
Presented by TheatreWorks in association with the Old Globe
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro St., Mountain View, CA / (650) 463-1960

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Family schisms and secrets are at the heart of "Other Desert Cities," a compelling modern drama by Jon Robin Baitz.

Presented by TheatreWorks in association with the Old Globe of San Diego, most of it takes place Christmas Eve 2004 at a home in Palm Springs. Brooke Wyeth (Kate Turnbull) and her younger brother, Trip (Rod Brogan), are joining their affluent parents, Polly (Kandis Chappell) and Lyman (James Sutorius), for the holiday. Completing the family gathering is Polly's sister, Silda Grauman (Julia Brothers), who is living with the elder Wyeths while continuing her rocky recovery from alcoholism.

Polly and Silda once co-wrote a popular movie series, while Lyman was a successful actor who became active in Republican politics. Trip produces a popular TV game show in Los Angeles. Brooke, a writer, lives on the East Coast and hasn't been home in six years. During that time, her marriage dissolved and she went into a deep depression.

The gathering begins amiably enough, but the differences in politics quickly become clear, with the elder Wyeths as staunch Republicans and the other three on the more liberal side. Another sour note emerges as Brooke brings up the name of her late older brother, Henry. Like many young people in the '70s, he rebelled against his upbringing. He fell in with a radical group that bombed a military recruiting station and inadvertently killed a janitor. Remorseful over that event, Henry apparently committed suicide.

Brooke has just completed a book -- a memoir, she calls it -- about her family and Henry. It has been sold to a publisher and will be printed in The New Yorker in February. After reading the manuscript, her parents beg her not to allow its publication. They say it will cause immeasurable harm to themselves and the family.

Brooke's conflicting loyalties to her family and to her belief in her book along with her desire for independence lead to painful, intense confrontations for all.

Although the play is fraught with such emotional moments, Baitz leavens it with sharp humor, much of it coming from Trip and Silda. When Brothers exits after Silda's first scene, for example, the audience applauds because Silda is so honest and down to earth.

Sutorius as Lyman and Brogan as Trip try to be the peacemakers as Brooke and Polly clash, but they get drawn into the fray, too.

Director Richard Seer skillfully guides the ensemble cast through shifting moods, helping to keep the audience enthralled.

The handsome set by Alexander Dodge was influenced by a 1960 Palm Springs house called "The House of Tomorrow" as well as "The Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway." Its modern design features a wide living room with an expansive view of bare, rugged mountains.

Lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt reflects changes in exterior light as well as shifting moods. Costumes by Charlotte Devaux help to define the characters. The sound is by Paul Peterson.

After its New York premiere in 2011, "Other Desert Cities" went on to win several honors, including finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It deserves such accolades because of its sharply drawn characters and because it's a riveting drama that speaks not only to family issues but also to American politics and the history of recent decades.

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