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.