Monday, January 28, 2013

High and dry with the far right

Home for the holidays in Palm Springs.

Okay, I have to ask this right up front:

Do you really care about aging Republicans in Palm Springs?

Because I don't.

And that's one reason I struggled with Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities, which SpeakEasy Stage is presenting in a superficially strong, but slightly anemic production through February 9 at the BCA.

Now I know I should love all God's creatures: spiders, snakes, smallpox - even Republicans.  Because of, you know . . . Jesus and Buddha and stuff. So I suppose I should be willing to grant these types my . . . aesthetic attention, for lack of a better phrase.  At least for the length of a play.

But honestly, Jon Robin Baitz has made it tough.  Partly because he thinks he has made it easy. The playwright seems to imagine he has somehow tied the emotional undertow of the classic American melodrama to the red/blue battle-line dividing our politics. All I can say is - if only.  If Baitz had, indeed, pulled off that particular trick, then Other Desert Cities would be of high interest.  But he has actually dodged the hard part of the job entirely.

To be fair, the playwright has penned a solidly entertaining long-form cable TV episode.  And to some in the theatre-going audience, that's probably enough.  Baitz was famously dumped from his own TV series, Brothers and Sisters, over the political themes he wanted to pull into its opening season; and that imbroglio clearly hangs over Other Desert Cities, which follows one Brooke Wyeth (Anne Gottlieb), a liberal writer who long ago retreated to a redoubt on Long Island (just as Baitz did), who is now spending a Jewish Christmas with her Palm-Springs-Republican parents, Polly and Lyman (Karen MacDonald and Munson Hicks).  Her apolitical bro-dude (Chistopher Smith) is also along for the ride in the holiday golf cart, while blowsy, broken alcoholic Aunt Silda (Nancy E. Carroll) livens things up with predictable speak-truth-now antics.

For Brooke has it in mind to lance a secret boil that has long plagued the family's psychological underbelly: one troubled brother, perhaps in reaction to his parents, swung further to the left than they did to the right, got involved with domestic terrorism in the 70's - and then vanished (and is now presumed dead). Polly and Lyman continue to live in denial of same, of course, while depressive Brooke has almost begun to feed on it emotionally - hence this Christmas she's gifting her parents with a tell-all memoir, spiked with secrets leaked by Aunt Silda.  

Now this is a solid melodramatic set-up, and at first Baitz competently cues us to wait for a slow drip of revelation to accelerate into confrontation.  But when that showdown finally comes, it's a bit of a let-down, because what Baitz seemed to promise as the distinctive twist of his plot, i.e., a battle royale between the mental stances shaping our two leading political styles (the denial of the right vs. the narcissism of the left), never actually materializes.   Indeed, Baitz never engages with what it means to be a Republican today; racism, homophobia, torture, the subjugation of women, the denial of science - none of the truly toxic aspects of the far right are aired here (probably because they would make the play's melodramatic frame collapse).  And at any rate, nobody's politics shift even an iota over the course of the drama, and the climax pivots entirely on familiar cliches of family loyalty. At the finish we really feel someone should pass through saying, "Nothing new to see here, move along now, move along."

Photos: Craig Bailey
I guess you could argue Brooke mellows a bit in her aggressive  New Age defenses - but is that enough to justify two and a half hours of complicated exposition and dramatic construction?  I'd argue no.  But clearly SpeakEasy feels otherwise - indeed, they even claim in their program notes that Jon Robin Baitz is "the Arthur Miller of our time."

Uh-huh.  I guess time will tell.  In the meantime, there are mild pleasures to be had from Other Desert Cities, thanks to a crack cast and director Scott Edmiston's customary skill. The stand-out is local light Anne Gottlieb (at left, with memoir), who manages to make the sensitive, self-obsessed Brooke not nearly as obnoxious as she might be in less skillful hands.  If anything, newcomer Christopher M. Smith is even a bit better in the lesser role of her politically-neutral brother; precisely cast and precisely directed, Smith makes superficiality seem like so much more than it is.  Just as skillful is the reliable Nancy E. Carroll as Aunt Silda, but you know, she could probably play this part (basically a set of snappy one-liners) in her sleep; and sadly, the moment Silda opens out into a conflicted character, Baitz drops her like a hot patio tile.

Front and center are the mysterious Republican parents, who are supposed to intrigue us with their curious mix of nasty clubhouse politics and easy-going, good-natured fun.  This combination isn't such a mystery, of course; nor does the portrayal of Jews celebrating Christmas at the country club with the Reagan crowd exactly knock us for a loop.  If Baitz had scratched the surface of these characters, he might have revealed a truly disturbing portrait of a certain kind of nervous, amoral ambition on the make.  But he doesn't seem able to see that far dramatically; I think narcissism has shaped his drama more than he realizes.  At any rate, the reliable Karen MacDonald and Munson Hicks both hold us, but they're both subtly mis-cast (neither is quite old enough, and the hearty MacDonald has trouble conveying brittle ruthlessness - while Hicks offers little sense of hidden depth).

A few other aspects of the production don't feel quite right - set designer Janie E. Howland seems to be aiming for David Hockney, for instance, but misses (although costumer Charles Schoonmaker pretty much nails Palm Springs chic).  Still, in general the surface is strong - Edmiston knows how to direct the well-made-play polish of Baitz's banter, and the cast is more than up to his culture-lite demands. Indeed, if you squinted, you might even mistake all this for Arthur Miller, I suppose.  

If you'd never seen Arthur Miller, that is.


  1. "Indeed, Baitz never engages with what it means to be a Republican today; racism, homophobia, torture, the subjugation of women, the denial of science - none of the truly toxic aspects of the far right are aired here (probably because they would make the play's melodramatic frame collapse)."

    You have conflated "Republican" and "far right," terms that are not synonymous. I have no intention of coming to either's defense, rather, I would simply state that you want Baitz to write a different play than the one he chose to write: a family drama. Perhaps politically motivated hatchet jobs are more your style. I prefer what Baitz has to offer.

  2. Sorry, but the Republican base is obviously the far right; without racists, homophobes, sexists, climate deniers, they'd have absolutely no chance of holding any power. Therefore it is quite fair to "conflate" them with the levers they press to attain office - indeed, in a way they're LOWER than the bigots they exploit, who at least are being honest.

    Baitz is also not quite being honest, btw. How can he build the central conflict of his play around political difference but then refuse to truly investigate that difference? You don't seem to have an answer to that. You state that he's simply penning " a family drama" - only its whole selling point is that it is a POLITICAL family drama.

    You also ignore the odd undertow of the family's Christmas celebration; these are Jews who not only go to holiday parties at their friends' houses, but actually have a Christmas tree in their own home (and even have Christmas dinner)! In other words, they have completely lost touch with their own tradition. And why? We guess purely for commercial reasons - but Baitz also leaves this rather large plot point simply hanging. So in a way I can't blame you for ignoring that issue; so did the playwright.

    Yes, the surface of the play is strong, as I said - it seems to be "well-made." But what's going on beneath that surface? This is where I do wish Baitz had written a different play - a better one!

    1. Your disdain for Republicans of any and all stripes is duly noted. You sound like one of those intolerant and intolerable Fox News freaks in reverse.

      Be that as it may ...

      Re "How can he build the central conflict of his play around political difference but then refuse to truly investigate that difference?": The central conflict of his play is based on a secret that Lyman and Polly Wyeth have kept from their daughter Brooke (along with everybody else) and how that withheld information has nearly destroyed Brooke's life. Yes, politics are involved, but what would you suggest? A second act in which U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the virtue of anti-war activism is the focus of discussion? Snore.

      Incidentally, you seem to be mighty upset about "Jews who not only go to holiday parties at their friends' houses, but actually have a Christmas tree in their own home (and even have Christmas dinner)!" Lyman Wyeth isn't Jewish. Baitz has made it perfectly clear that his Jewish wife has turned her back on her faith.

  3. I am intolerant of Republicans, and fascist fellow-travelers in general, yes. Sorry!

    Now I can tell you're feeling guilty and defensive about being a Republican - as well you should. So I want you to know that help is available. You don't have to be a traitor to your country for the sake of a tax break forever!

    Still, the thing is you have to WANT to change . . .

    And on that note - no, we don't need yet another gleamingly structured but ultimately empty act of pseudo-political badinage from Jon Robin Baitz. What we need rather is to have more honestly political - or honestly moral - dialogue imbedded in the banter of the acts he has already written. But over and over again, the playwright prefers to leap from a seeming political critique of parents Lyman and Polly to an appeal to family loyalty. He stages this apples-and-oranges face-off so often, in fact, that we eventually realize it's all he's got.

    But it's not nearly enough. Arthur Miller would have done quite a bit more. In fact he certainly would have had Lyman and Polly face - yes, honestly FACE - their role in their son's radicalism. (That would have generated some real drama.) But this never actually happens - Polly and Lyman are allowed to hang onto their denial of same. Just as Baitz never explicitly confronts liberal Brooke with her own complicity in her parents' Republican antics. After all, where did the money come from that paid for her upbringing, and her sojourns at McLean? From the "Republican crowd" at the country club she loathes. Baitz nods to these issues with jokes and asides, but in the end lets everybody off the hook.

    As for Lyman being a goy - well, MAYBE . . . I've got the script, and that's never stated explicitly, although Polly and her sister are clearly identified as Jewish. ( I get the impression Baitz intends Lyman to be something of a cipher in this and all other aspects of his identity; he plays "Reagan" to Polly's "Nancy.") But even if Lyman is Episcopalian, my point about the couple's abandonment of their Jewish identity remains salient (particularly as Polly is the obviously the one running things). Baitz even takes the time to make it clear that they are members of a country club that was until recently closed to Jews (the implication is that Polly joined while "passing"). That's going a bit far, I think.

    I feel in the end you're upset because Baitz has sabotaged his play by honoring the "out" that you, like many Republicans who imagine they're nice people, demand for yourselves: that your selling out of your true feelings and politics for the sake of your careers never be mentioned, never be criticized. Polly, for instance, insists over and over that unlike so many Republicans these days, she "doesn't have a bigoted bone in her body;" she claims to identify with Republicanism because of, oh I don't know, drugs and stuff, and 9/11. But are those claims true? I'd argue no, and certainly her full history eventually makes her look like a hypocrite. But even when the final, contradictory facts about the Wyeths are revealed, Baitz doesn't force them to comprehend the moral reality of their lives. Family loyalty trumps their politics, it turns out - just as it should Brooke's, apparently.

    See, in an Arthur Miller play (or at least the great Arthur Miller plays) the chickens come home to roost, and family loyalty is cracked open. We see the hooker in the hotel room with Willy Loman. Joe Keller's guilt catches up with him. Jon Robin Baitz seems unable to imagine that kind of moment of truth. Which is why he has written an inferior play.