Other Desert Cities
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 9, 2011
It's undeniably a treat to see Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach on Broadway again, in roles that generally suit them well: the exemplary acting of these two great stars, along with that of newcomer Thomas Sadoksi, is the main reason to see Lincoln Center Theater's transfer of last season's Other Desert Cities.
But I was expecting so much more! The script, by Jon Robin Baitz, touches on several really pertinent issues. There's the idea of who owns a family's collective memories, exemplified here by the play's main plot point, wherein daughter Brooke (Rachel Griffiths) writes a book that exposes family secrets that are, at best, embarrassing to her parents (Channing and Keach); at worst, the memoir opens old wounds and pours heaping layers of salt on them. The book is about Brooke's older brother, who killed himself after getting involved (probably inadvertently) in a Weather Underground-esque bombing that murdered one innocent man. Brooke places the blame for what happened to her brother and herself squarely on her parents' Polly and Lyman's shoulders, but it turns out that there are many layers of truth to be revealed here, and so Brooke's cathartic work of art is simultaneously an appropriation and a betrayal.
There's also the idea that Polly and Lyman—who resemble the Reagans in a lot of ways, he being an ex-movie star who became a prominent conservative Republican politician, she being a steely but unflappably elegant hostess and champion of right-wing causes—and people like them are responsible for the failings of their children and the rudderless anomie that has overtaken America. There is definitely something to this thesis; but Baitz mostly skirts serious discussion of it to pursue the many other soap-oper-y elements that litter his play.
Baitz lets us down badly, not just by failing to really follow through on the ideas his play seems to be about, but in the more fundamental requirements of dramatic storytelling. The first hour of the play is virtually entirely exposition, making for a heady, awkward, and uninterrupted flow of information, much of which we probably don't need to know. More problematic, the basic chronology of Baitz's story made no sense to me. The son's suicide occurred during the Vietnam War, which is to say at least 30 years before the opening scene of the play (which the program gives as Christmas 2004). Brooke supposedly wrote a successful novel six years ago and then went through a breakdown that she attributes to her brother's suicide, following which she wrote the book that is the play's focus. Why did Brooke wait more than twenty years to have this breakdown? What was she doing all those years between her brother's death and her first novel? (About twenty-five years, according to my calculations.) Why does everyone in the story seem about 20 years younger than they probably are? Why didn't Baitz set this play in the '80s, when it would have made sense, rather than the 21st century? Am I the only one who kept getting derailed, over and over during the play, by this gaping lapse in logic?
Joe Mantello has staged the play on a sumptuous set by John Lee Beatty; costumes by David Zinn and lighting by Kenneth Posner are also up to the LCT standard. Channing is the play's solid center, playing a woman who curls up in her bedroom to read a book on Christmas Eve and returns to the living room afterward still wearing her expensive designer stiletto-heel shoes. I love Stockard Channing and she has some great moments here to do what she does so well, but this play is not equal to her talents. Ditto Keach, who really seems to get under Lyman's skin in Act One, only to have the rug pulled out from under his character as the play moves toward its climax. Sadoski has the play's best speech, and his character is the one who makes the most sense. Griffiths, on the other hand, is stuck as the daughter who is impossible to like, since Baitz keeps dealing her worse and worse cards. Judith Light, taking over for Linda Lavin as Channing's drunken sister (think the Elaine Stritch role in the recent revival of A Delicate Balance), seems game but fundamentally miscast.
I was hoping that Other Desert Cities was going to be the Broadway play this season that reminded me why Broadway is great, but it's not. Right now, all of the best new American drama is happening elsewhere in New York, at a far lower ticket price.