Other Desert Cities, the powerful drama that opened at Circle Theatre on Saturday, is ultimately about politics.
But, while international and domestic political events have some impact on the Wyeth family, it is the delicate and intricate chess moves made within their home that give this 2011 play by Jon Robin Baitz its punch-to-the-gut intensity.
The action is set in the sand-hued, tastefully appointed Palm Springs living room of Lyman and Polly Wyeth (John S. Davies and Connie Coit). Both are former movie stars from the black-and-white era, but Lyman has turned to politics, and Polly has taken on the role of a political wife. They make frequent mention of their friends, Ron and Nancy Reagan, whom they mirror so exactly with their show-business pasts and their conservative political present.
It is Christmas Eve, so the grown children, Brooke (Dana Schultes) and younger brother Trip (Jeff Burleson), are visiting. Polly’s sister, Silda (Cindee Mayfield), is already in residence at the Wyeth’s desert bungalow, having bounced in from her latest stint of drying out in a rehab facility.
This well-accomplished family unit is all love and laughter when we meet them, jovial and sweaty after a morning round of tennis. There are some obvious, underlying tensions (Brooke is an East Coast liberal, while her parents are quintessential California conservatives), but most of the jabs they throw at one another wear well-padded gloves.
But then, with little warning, the layers of this onion begin to peel away.
We learn that Brooke has had success as a novelist before having to be hospitalized for depression. She seems to be on the rebound and the family is excited about her coming book, which they think is a novel. Instead, Brooke has written a tell-all memoir about the Wyeths, and there are some stories that Lyman and Polly, especially, do not want to be told.
What ensues is about the most riveting and compelling two-hours-plus of theater you are ever likely to experience. The family members (including the peacemaking, relatively impartial Trip and the staggering, beaten-down Silda) spar, negotiate, rail at one another and threaten to explode as lamps are lit to illuminate a dark past.
It would be difficult to overpraise this incredibly well-crafted script by Baitz, whose impressive résumé includes being the creator of the critically acclaimed television series Brothers & Sisters. His dialogue is written with beautiful sharpness and economy. His story arc is a roller-coaster ride that dares you to take your white-knuckled hands off the safety bar for even a second.
And it is full of little touches that complement and enhance the script’s grander ideas, such as Trip being the producer of a courtroom-based reality show where judgments are passed and money and justice get a bit tangled up.
There is no doubt that this fine play has already seen many outstanding stagings in its brief history. But it is hard to imagine how it could ever have been done any better than by the superlative cast currently roaring through this material in Circle’s basement space.
Every member of this cast is just off-the-charts good. Davies and Coit are an ideal power couple who are as hard as flint on the outside, but roiling with vulnerabilities when the masks are stripped away. Mayfield and Burleson are excellent in their supporting roles and make sure their characters serve the script’s ends (she wounds, he heals) in exactly the right measure.
Schultes, who has spent most of her career at Stage West, where she serves as co-producing director, delivers the performance of a lifetime. Many of you know how good she is from her work at her home theater. But until you have seen her in this show (where she is unburdened from administrative duties and is free to concentrate on her performance), you have no idea what incredible work she is capable of doing.
Director Steven Pounders guides this cast like a maestro coaxing an orchestra full of virtuosos through an especially challenging symphony. He knows exactly when to cool down the brasses and heat up the fiddles.
And he moves his players around the cozy stage like a chess grandmaster. The king and the queen are constantly under threat in this show, and we are never sure whether the pawns, knights and bishops around them will be attacking or defending. And Pounders’ blocking visualizes that game within this plot with breathtaking aplomb.
Thanks to the brilliant and gorgeous set design by Clare Floyd DeVries, Pounders has a little more room to roam. DeVries not only gives the show a sleek, handsome look, she enlarges the room by creating some nooks and crannies that add surprising depth to a space that normally feels more cramped.
In addition to Schultes’ visiting turn, this show also has a tie to another area theater, Dallas’ Theatre Three. Davies, Coit, Burleson and Mayfield did this show there in 2013 under the direction of Theatre Three founder Jac Alder, who passed away this year. This production is dedicated to his memory.
The criticisms that might be leveled at this play are that it is overloaded (this family sure has a boat load of problems), talky and too long.
But, if you buy into this script and its characters, you will be rewarded in myriad ways.