Theater Review | OTHER DESERT CITIES by Jon Robin Baitz at Portland Center Stage

You can take the play out of New York – but you can’t take New York out of the play. The comedy that begins OTHER DESERT CITIES has a surprisingly hard time connecting with Portland audience members, probably because they lack the Jewish context crucial to Jon Robin Baitz’s humor and the Grauman sisters on stage. But once the story deepens and darkens in the taut second act, this ambitious new main stage play takes us on an epic journey through the last 30 years in the life of one family – and by extension the entire American establishment.

OTHER DESERT CITIES by Jon Robin Baitz at Portland Center Stage

Thru Mar 22

3-stars

Not the way they planned to spend Christmas Eve.  OTHER DESERT CITIES.  Photo: Patrick Weishmpel/blankeye.tv
Not the way they planned to spend Christmas Eve. OTHER DESERT CITIES. Photo: Patrick Weishmpel/blankeye.tv

Remember that long and grinding American war of not too long ago – the one that might not even be completely over, the repercussions of which will be felt for years to come?

I know, I know – it’s Christmas Eve. But still, let’s talk of war.

I don’t mean Viet Nam or Iraq or Nicaragua. I’m thinking closer to home and smaller in scale. The setting is not the Middle East or Southeast Asia, though there are palm trees and sand involved. The front line has been cold for years in this conflict, but all of a sudden a new guerrilla campaign is bringing both sides to full alert. The war I’m talking about is heating up again, and before the night is over and Santa Claus touches down, there could be some serious casualties for all involved.

Still stumped?

You need look no further than the desert enclave of America’s old guard Republican elite. The place is Palm Springs, and the combatants are the tanned and traumatized Wyeth family of Jon Robin Baitz’s latest play, OTHER DESERT CITIES, now receiving a fine production at Portland Center Stage.

According to Baitz (b. Nov 4, 1961), when the personal and the political intersect – that’s when things get interesting. A Californian and son of a globe-trotting corporate executive, the playwright grew up among expat communities in Brazil and South Africa and has delivered a stream of interesting, often international stories that draw on his own personal experience abroad. There are no “issues” in a Baitz play – there are only complicated, conflicted, searching humans.

In his effort here, a sharp if traditional family drama, Baitz sets out to write a big establishment play for his mainstream home audience at Lincoln Center. His aim is to tell the story of an entire generation and era through the members of a 1%-er family. And he fulfills this remit admirably.

We begin, as always, with comedy. No matter how dark you are going to get, you have to start with comedy to infiltrate the audience’s defenses, collect their attention – and then steer the narrative elsewhere.

The play opens in deceptively familiar sitcom territory (where Baitz has worked at his day job for some time), and if you want to truly enjoy the experience to maximum effect, stop reading right now and simply go see it without learning anything more about the story.

As the curtain goes up, it’s Christmas Eve 2004 and we are in the comfortable Palm Springs retirement castle home of Lyman (Ned Schmidtke) and Polly Wyeth (Barbara Broughton), old school Californian Republicans in their 70’s who used to hob nob with the likes of Ron and Nancy and Sinatra before – well, stuff happened.

Brooke Wyeth (D’Arcy Dersham), the daughter of the family, is a mid 40s writer now living out on Long Island where she has finally produced her second book after a long bout of serious depression. She has come home for the holidays, but is also on a mission to share the content of her memoir before publishing it. Also in attendance are younger brother Trip (Joel Reuben Ganz), a single TV producer in Los Angeles who plays it silly on the outside but has some very real damage on the inside, and Silda Grauman (Susan Cella), Polly’s profane and recently (barely) sober sister, who appears to be living with her well-heeled relatives semi-permanently.

I can’t say much more about the exact story without giving it all way, but you have probably already guessed that the subject of Brooke’s book (which is a memoir) is the family itself, and specifically the family closet which is stocked with more skeletons than matriarch Polly has Chanel power suits. Brooke takes on the mystery and tragedy at the heart of her own family’s personal story as an attempt to free herself. In the process, her parents’ entire generation are placed in the dock (or as Trip jokes, the war crimes tribunal at the Hague for Polly) for interrogation. In 1974, something happened to the Wyeth family that no one has quite put to rest or moved beyond. And on this night of all nights (“Oh fuck – I forgot it’s Christmas eve” as Silda cracks), it’s finally time for the story to come out.

The structure of the play becomes one long conversation with all involved. The stakes get raised and raised again. And at last we get to the heart of it. In the literal story – what some family members think happened isn’t what happened. In the larger allegory, what happened to America? Can we say for sure?

There are some strong performances here, beginning with Barbara Broughton’s spot on portrayal of iron-lady-who-lunches Polly. With her helmet of white hair combed back, stern manner, and a voice that pierces like a cruise missile, Broughton is tremendous, particularly as the play goes on and on. Remember back when your grandparents could smoke and drink all night in formal wear, and then be up at 6 AM to bang out a tennis game? That’s this Polly down to the ground. She channels perfectly the spirit of someone who has been on top for a long, long time (even if she started off as a “Jew from Texas”, as her sister reminds her) and can hold the entire Armory in the palm of her hand. With her voice polished by one too many Virginia Slims and vodka tonics, Polly fluidly slings bon mots that stick in the woodwork like darts.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Ned Schmidtke as the other half of this old school California power couple. Schmidtke is simply miscast. With his hunched over posture and downcast gaze, and a vocal delivery tone that breaks into melodramatic spluttering whenever his energy level and volume rise, Schmidtke does not look or act the part of a former US Ambassador from California, a Republican power broker from the Golden State. Of course, not everyone can be Stacy Keach, who utterly owned this part in the play’s premiere, but the Lyman we see here is not someone who would possess signed portraits of Sinatra, Rock Hudson and Barry Goldwater – much less have hung out with same. As a former Hollywood actor, Lyman needs to radiate suave power, chiseled looks, and steel gaze. A beard? No. Imagine a 65 year old Jack Nicholson, or a Peter Fonda with another 50 pounds oh his frame. Or Tracy Letts in a few more years. It doesn’t wreck the show by any means, but the energy of not just one but two unforgettable actors in the parental roles (as was the case with Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach) would have created that much more of a special experience for the audience.

I have seen the PCS show three times, and each night D’Arcy Dersham’s performance as Brooke grew a little more on me. She perhaps starts off as a little too jagged and wild funny, cackly, but when things get serious and the inner pain comes out, Dersham is doing some splendid work here. Sit up close and keep your eye on her for the last 15 minutes of the play. And when the moment comes to throw out everything we thought we knew – it’s physically and visually unforgettable.

Joel Reuben Ganz as the employed but still kind of screw up younger brother is very, very funny indeed, and he is given some of the funniest lines. He also gathers steam and strength as the laughs fall away.

Speaking of funny, Susan Cella as the other Jew from Texas mows down the scenery and her sister like a guerrilla fighter on a mission. Whereas Polly has gone respectable and embraced the power structure, Silda remains the outsider ready to hurl (not just lob) bombs at all of her sister’s (and thus yours, dear audience member) core beliefs. Whether she is trying to suck a forbidden contact high out of a wisp of pot in the air, inhaling the paint off the inside of a coffee cup that just held bourbon a moment before, or parading her “Pucci” (“They don’t have fake at Loehmann’s!”), Silda brings a reality check and marvelously rough presence to the white and tan Palm Springs get away.

Having seen the show on Broadway to a deafening reception, it was fascinating to watch at least five or six jokes in the first 20 minutes which reduced the New York house to smoking cinders hit the air in Portland to – complete silence. Many of these have specific Jewish context or reference which may be unknown to Oregonians. Perhaps realizing by now they are not going to get a laugh, the actors are delivering these laugh lines briskly and moving on without pausing, but it’s a shame that Portlanders are deprived of hearing how utterly Baitz connects with (and delights) his home town crowd.

In one example, when Polly says “My people!”, in New York you could barely even hear that line because the tidal wave was already building from the previous line to the laugh and what everyone knew. The New York audience practically shouted the line for her. In Portland, people may not have even understood what she meant – let alone how funny the moment is. Anyway, for those unfamiliar with the tribe, the first third of the play could involve a few blank stares. Do your part – get the room started and laugh raucously as Silda would do if she were in the audience, and maybe you’ll unshackle everyone else. There’s also a great throw away line about divorce from Brooke that should connect with any audience – but strangely didn’t here.

One unfortunate choice here is the sound design. The misuse of music (muzak, really) in the PCS building has been going on for some time. The only other public spaces I know that so relentlessly pump music into every nook and cranny are malls and airports, neither of which would be good models for an artistic organization. Why exactly is Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” being beamed into the men’s room or lobby – regardless of what play is on or what else is happening? Serious white man’s over bite syndrome alert. It’s not “hip” (Led Zeppelin??), it’s not exciting. It feels like music is being used as emotional programming, an attempt to send people home with a whiff of emotion from the music at least – if not from the work on stage.

Why are cliched 60’s and 70’s songs blasting at us every second that OTHER DESERT CITIES is not on stage? This becomes supremely invasive and annoying at intermission and at the close of the play. Instead of being left with our own thoughts, conversation and the perfectly sufficient echoing music of Baitz’s dialogue and play in our heads to wander out into the night and consider that the great American play lives, all of a sudden – BAM – it’s Cat Stevens or the Beach Boys. I dare say Baitz would be horrified if he had to sit through the musical straight-jacketing covering every inch of the production here. The play is plenty good enough to create its own atmosphere and mood without audio wallpaper.

If you are in a position to say something to someone about this – please do! Speak up about the cheese ball barrage of canned music inside what should be a cathedral for the live spoken word.

-Win Goodbody