In the opening scene of Other Desert Cities, we meet Polly and Lyman Wyeth, a couple so unapologetically – and comically – Republican, my first point of reference went immediately to Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock. Exemplifying wealthy elitism, disdain for taxes, and unrelenting hawkishness, they create a stark contrast against their adult children who range from lefty to indifferent. We meet the family on the occasion of their daughter Brooke’s visit from the east coast where she’s lived for several years. The narrative occurs in the Wyeth’s Palm Springs home, which manages to be upscale without having any particular sense of style. Everything in their living room is beige, and one might guess that their entire social circle is similarly colored. Brooke, a writer, has a new book coming out and a big announcement to make: the new work is a memoir that promises to unearth several skeletons from the family’s history. The senior Wyeths are understandably nervous; the book’s disclosure of a harrowing family situation implicates both of them. As a small courtesy, Brooke has manuscripts for everyone and offers her relatives the chance to address any truly objectionable material before the New Yorker publishes an excerpt.
In the scenes that follow, Polly, Lyman, Trip (Brooke’s brother), and Aunt Silda all have their turns hurling vitriol at one another over the tensions and buried secrets that the book digs up. The performances are phenomenal, particularly the elder Wyeths, played by Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach. The conservative caricatures they present in the play’s opening evolve seamlessly into complex, nuanced individuals whose worldviews and principles come deeply at odds with parental love and protection.
Ultimately, a big reveal is made – a surprise that turns the family secret upside down. But I didn’t find it as satisfying or powerful as I imagine it intended to be. Throughout the previous scenes of insults and attacks, there is the sense that something big is imminent. And it is. But I found it so hard to believe that it made the play nosedive into implausibility. I admire Jon Robin Baitz’s bold writing and his ability to keep the tension level simmering throughout the pressure cooker that exists in the seemingly serene Wyeth home. And I liked his portrayal of how staunch political belief can seem unflinching until it compromises your own child. The play is an impressive work, but the climax felt false, like the Palm Springs home that has the appearance of comfort.