San Diego, CA— As steady and calm as most desert climate forecasts seem to be, a family crisis of hurricane proportions begins unraveling in front of our eyes in the Desert City of Palm Springs where the Wyeth Clan is gathering for the holidays. Daughter Brooke is ready to unveil to her family, at last, her latest ‘novel’ before publication.
There is nothing shy about matriarch Polly Wyeth (Kandis Chappell). She says it ‘like it is’. (“Sarcasm is the purview of teenagers and homosexuals.”) For the most part her friends, Nancy and Ronnie (Reagan that is) and the rest of the big donors in the Republican Party, admire her outspokenness.
As for her two liberal minded offspring Brooke (Dana Green) and Trip (Andy Bean) and Polly’s recovering alcoholic sister Silda (Robin Pearson Rose) her behavior is a bit too cutting and deliberately hurtful for their bones. And as for her husband Lyman (Robert Foxworth), well he stands by his girl and for good reason.
Jon Robin Baitz’ award winning drama “Other Desert Cities” is making its San Diego premiere at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park through June 2nd. With Richard Seer at the helm and an all-star cast of long time Globe Associate artists in the spotlight, this thought provoking blisteringly caustic, oft times laugh out loud funny play is not at all what one might imagine at first glance.
“Other Desert Cities” premiered Off-Broadway in January 2011 and moved to Broadway in November of that same year. Not surprisingly, it was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Ben Bradley of the New York Times said of it that it … “was the most thoroughly and sustained work from Mr. Baitz, who had been regarded as a promising wunderkind for long past his sell-by date.
Lyman Wyeth is a retired actor, not one whose name is now easily recognizable. After his acting career waned, loyalty to his Republican Party earned him both chair of the GOP and an ambassador appointment where he gained favor from his fellow travelers. He also had the distinction of being spokesperson for the California Wine Board.
Polly, fresh out of Bryn Mawr, went straight to MGM where she became a screenwriter. She and her sister, noted for their screen plays, the ‘Hilary’ series; “Here Comes Hilary”, Hasta La Vista Hilary”, etc., brought her her own fame and success. The films are now all included in a DVD box set that Brooke watches now and then.
That dynamic duo writing partnership lasted until the two had a falling out. According to Polly being a wife became a full time job, but in reality “once it became about drugs and lefties whining, I was out”.
Today their stars of fame are as obscure as are their Jewish ones of the past; sequestered away far from the Hills of Hollywood where they are hunkered down in another desert city. It is here that they join their otherwise Jewish friends at the Country Club where they, what else, have Christmas brunch together and pretend not to think about their past and last family tragedy. (Andrew Dodge designed the Wyeth living right out of a House Beautiful magazine. More on that later.)
Both Brooke and her brother Trip have taken up the gauntlet from their parents, somewhat. He produces a TV show something between a ‘Judge Judy’/’Peoples Court’ type and Brooke is a writer. From what we learn Brooke had a nervous breakdown that sent her into years of depression and therapy caused after their older brother Henry committed suicide.
She is so driven by that fact; to wit, she has written a tell all book about that tragedy and what the lead up to it was. It is of course as she recalls and opines. It is a memoir if you will. She has come to the desert to let her parents know that her so-called second novel is not a novel after all.
Warning! Danger Ahead! The senior Wyeth’s are haunted by that incident in their lives and they don’t want to be reminded about it in a book, in conversation or by innuendo, nor do they wish to discuss. Period. Exclamation point. End of sentence!
Henry, a product of the late sixties and early seventies did what most young people of his generation did; they fought for what we thought then were radical causes like opposing the war in Vietnam, demonstrating in the streets, smoking pot and irritating the hell out of their parents.
Unfortunately for Henry though, he crossed the line and was implicated in a bombing incident at a recruiting office that ended up turning deadly. From all accounts a suicide note in his writing along with his clothes were found left on a ferry in Seattle. It was reported that Henry jumped overboard.
Sometime after the dust settled, reputations restored and friendships rekindled Polly and Lyman hightailed to Palm Springs where they would like Brooke to settle (she lives in New York) and where Silda spends her days sleeping and drying out.
Son Trip lives close but far enough away in Los Angeles. He seems to be the equalizer, or at least makes an effort to be one, as Brooke wrestles out loud with her inner conflict as to how much lateral damage will or will not befall her parents if her truth be known. Trip, the youngest of the three, has no real memories of the event. Brooke wants some sort of green light from Polly. Good luck with that one.
The lingering question at intermission being discussed was how loyal do we need to be to our family/parents and how far will we go, or not to protect them? As for Silda, she is still the rebel without a cause and encourages Brooke to sock it to ‘em and let the chips fall where they may. Trip has other thoughts. He is the gentler, kinder offspring and doesn’t see the need to go that far, but he vacillates.
Now, as they say, the chickens have come home to roost. Brooke is determined to publish her book going so far as to have given The New Yorker a few chapters to print in the coming months.
If you have never seen Kandis Chappell in action, this should be your golden opportunity. She is by far at her peak as the cutting, take no prisoners Polly Wyeth. Polished by nature from her years of unflinching commitment to her cause as the protective wife and mother, inflexible as a rod when it comes to guarding her secret, her zingers come so fast, furious and vicious that each target she bulls eye flinches.
That’s the good news/bad news for Chappell. Her pointed and scathing remarks, voiced in her seasoned and resonant cadences usually draw rounds of laughter to the detriment of the next volley. Ms. Chappell is simply stunning in this role and we can’t blame her for the laughter.
Foxworth’s Lyman is just the opposite. His quiet resolve is almost heartbreaking as he slinks into himself looking like a defeated, but not unloved man. Bean’s Trip is like an almost ran. He’s there but he’s not. He’s best when defending and defining his TV show, but almost delegated to the background by the three strong women in his life.
Robin Pearson Rose has the most fun with the best lines. She can be her destructive, quizzical and liberal self as long as she desires and we will love her. Fortunately or unfortunately, her history filters into the family mess and she too becomes a whipping boy when Polly feels the need to strike out at someone other than Brooke.
Dana Green’s Brooke has all that pent up anxiety and anguish needed as the driven and hurt daughter. Her obsession to get the truth out trumps all and that in turn brings the troops home to rally. What we learn will rock our socks off. In the meantime, hell be damned if she’s going to go easy on her parents whom she thinks are to blame for her brother’s death. She will not be talked out of publishing this tell all family secret.
All this ads to the approaching storm about to hit the Wyeth homestead but it might have been more pointed had Ms. Green spoken up and didn’t drop her voice as often as she did on opening night. Notwithstanding though, she defines the conflict.
Charlotte Devaux’s costume designs are exceptionally flattering to Ms. Chappell who wears them with the ease of a star. She always holds her own looking stately in desert suitable attire while Green’s Brooke still has the east coast dark color, winter look about them. Foxworth’s Lyman is well coordinated in soft colors flattering to him and Trip looks casual California. All is well.
Alexander Dodge’s set (as mentioned earlier) taken from the pages of House Beautiful, is like a vista vision of panoramic beauty filling the entire stage with rustic brick and soft wooden accented walls, an enormous metal fire pit in the center of the room that actually works. Sundry sofas, lounges and contemporary looking chairs with upholstered benches satisfy the spaces nicely.
Off to one side a short staircase leads to a bar and the master bedroom while on the other closeted hall wall takes one to other living areas. The piece de resistance is the mountain range off in the background appropriately lit by York Kennedy’s subtle lighting. Standing alone in all it’s forgotten glory is a Christmas tree reminding us of the season (to be jolly).
Playwright Baitz has opened up an interesting topic about family loyalty, family secrets and what it means to be family.
Discuss among yourselves and enjoy
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through June 2nd
Organization: The Old Globe
Production Type: Comedy/Drama
Where: 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park 92101
Ticket Prices: from $29.00
Venue: Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage