Jeannie Berlin as Silda Grauman and JoBeth Williams as her sister Polly Wyeth. Photo by Craig Schwartz
Bombs aren’t just going off in Baghdad; there’s a big one set to explode in Palm Springs, year 2004, in Jon Robin Baitz’s Pulitzer Prize finalist, “Other Desert Cities.” At the Taper through Jan. 6, this internecine drama revolves around the one family member who is not present while bearing down on the daughter who seeks her parents’ blessing – and the latter’s intransigence in not bestowing it upon her.
Lyman Wyeth (Robert Foxworth) and Polly Wyeth (JoBeth Williams) are, respectively, a former B-movie leading actor and screenwriter, presumably back in the 1950s, early ‘60s, former friends of Ronnie and Nancy (as if that defines them), and currently staunch Republicans who support what another gunslinger of a president is stirring up in the Middle East.
However, of their three children, the two oldest were politicized in the other direction. Elder brother Henry went the Patty Hearst route, so to speak, became implicated in a bombing at a recruiting center in Long Beach in which one person died, and then apparently committed suicide by leaping from a ferry into a very cold ocean. His body was never recovered.
Brooke, the middle child (RobinWeigert), took this pretty hard and was hospitalized for depression (she also became a published novelist and a New Yorker, a dangerous combination under the best of circumstances). Younger brother Trip (Michael Weston) was only five at the time of Henry’s disappearance, wasn’t quite tainted by it, and he now produces a reality TV show in L.A. He’s a bit of a goofball, at least as Weston plays him, which perhaps insulates him from being victimized while visiting mom and dad.
And then there’s Silda Grauman (Jeannie Berlin), Polly’s sister and a recovering alcoholic who looks like a female version of one of the Rolling Stones – Ronnie Woods, perhaps – circa 1974. Berlin plays Silda as if she’s still a bit woozy from all those drinks she had last year or maybe in the last century. I imagine that Berlin has had a lot of fun with the understated, deadpan humor she brings to the role, and one can see how she could easily run away with the play – the potential Pied Piper of Palm Springs, and many of us would get up and follow.
Although Silda is clearly Brooke’s ally, she’s also the comic relief that makes Brooke bearable, because while Brooke may be earnest, she’s also somewhat dour and, let’s face it, a bit of a drag to be around.
Here’s why. Instead of another novel, as her family has been led to believe, Brooke has penned a memoir about her late brother, and the New Yorker wants to publish an excerpt. But now, home for the holidays – and how much unspoken commentary are we to derive from the Christmas tree in the background? – she wants the approval of her parents before the work is printed.
Polly bares both claws and fangs, but Lyman is less judgmental and more lenient. Clearly there’s a bond between father and daughter, but Lyman nonetheless tells her that there will be consequences: You will still be our daughter, but our relationship will change.
Is the play just exploring the ramifications of decency, of good manners, of putting up a brave front, of trust and respect within the family, or is there something else? Is Brooke scratching away at something that will explode in her face? Does she really know what she thinks she knows? Finally, is it true that we should let sleeping dogs lie, because we don’t know what will happen once they awake?
Yes, there’s a jolt, a bolt out of the blue that somehow seems poignant and a bit contrived at the same time, but which certainly rivets the audience.
Baitz has delivered an entertaining, largely engrossing, and thought-provoking work, and under the direction of Robert Egan he has a first-rate cast to bring it vividly to life.
Other Desert Cities in onstage through Jan. 6 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles in the Music Center. Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Exceptions: No performance on Christmas Day or New Year’s Day. One added show on Monday, Dec. 31, at 8 p.m. Tickets, $20 to $78. Call (213) 628-2772 or go to CenterTheatreGroup.org. ER