Other Desert Cities takes place in Palm Springs, California in 2004. Brooke (Griffiths) has returned home from her cottage in Sag Harbour, New York to her family home and Southern California roots. Her parents are conservative Republicans who spend their time at the country club and at Republican fund-raisers. Her father, Lyman Wyeth (Keach) is a former actor and ambassador. He and his wife, Polly (Channing), were intimates with Ron and Nancy (yes, that Ron and Nancy). Brooks brother, Trip, is played by Broadway's current "It" boy (no, not Hugh Jackman, Broadway’s other “It” boy), the always terrific Thomas Sadoski. He is the producer of a court-room reality show and the family arbiter. Light is Polly’s sister, Silda Grauman, a recovering alcoholic who has lived in her sister’s shadow her entire life. At times her resentment is palpable.
Baitz has created a high-profile dysfunctional family that's holding onto one big secret that only the parents and Silda know. That secret is about to spill out into the light of day, forced by Brooke’s big announcement. She is a successful author with one previously published book to her name. She has come home to break the news to her family that her new book (which they believe to be a novel) is really a tell-all book about them and the suicide of her idolized older brother, Henry. He became estranged with his parents after joining a cult and blowing up a recruiting station where someone was killed. Mental illness runs in the family and Brooke has spent a good deal of her life in mental health facilities.
The family dynamics mirror each other in successive generations in this play. “Don't talk to me like Mom talks to Silda” chides Brook to Trip. Channing’s Polly is a pit-bull. You can tell she has had to stand up to her share of public scrutiny. She's cold-hearted towards both her daughter and her sister. She even belittles her own daughter's secretive emotional life "lots of locked doors in her doll-house."
Griffiths is marvelous as Brooke, believable and sympathetic. I’m always impressed with actors from other countries who do such an undetectable American accent. Griffiths has handily dispensed with her native dialect for her state-side television projects which included TV's "Six Feet Under" and "Brothers and Sisters." During the curtain call there was an appeal for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and Griffiths immediately lapsed into her Aussie accent.
Channing and Light boldly inhabit these polar opposite siblings and Baitz has given these ladies some great verbal sparring. Perhaps my favorite line of the play is when Polly refers to herself as a Texan. Silda reminds her “you’re not a Texan, you’re a Jew.”
The set, by scenic designer John Lee Beatty is 1960s desert-modern and includes a circular fireplace. I’m not sure whether this was an artistic decision or not, but the furniture on the stage was an off-white and was actually spotted and dirty. This struck me as odd and I found it distracting.
All in all, Bates has crafted a moving and funny play. I could, however, have done without the epilogue where we see Brooke giving a public reading of her book at a Seattle bookstore. Her parents Polly and Lyman are seen in a tableau up-center, Silva is down-left sitting motionless at a table with a bottle and glass in front of her. The button Baitz put on the and of the prior scene seemed a perfect ending for the play. Despite this minor objection I can’t recommend this play highly enough.