January 22, 2011

Other Desert Cities Blooms, Thanks to Its Cast

Lincoln Center Theater must be a great place to work.  The best actors in the theater today seem to be queuing up at its door. Just reading its cast lineups this season has been like looking at a crib sheet for future inductees into the Theater Hall of Fame.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown may have closed down before its limited run was supposed to end but it starred Laura Benanti, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Sherie Rene Scott and Patti LuPone.  Now, with Other Desert Cities, playing at The Mitzi E. Newhouse through Feb. 27, Lincoln Center has assembled not only an all-star cast but a thoroughly winning show. So much so, that it’s already announced plans to move Other Desert Cities to Broadway next fall.

Here’s hoping that it can keep the cast in tact. The play, a tart-tongued drama about family secrets and lingering resentments between an affluent older couple and their baby boomer children, is custom-made for the prime Broadway theatergoing audience, which, of course, falls right into those demographics. But it’s the sensational performances by Thomas Sadoski, Linda Lavin, Elizabeth Marvel, Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach that make this a production you won’t want to miss. 

The play opens on Christmas Eve 2004, as Lyman Wyeth, a genial Ronald Reagan-grade movie star who’s achieved greater success in politics, and his wife Polly, a former screenwriter, are preparing to celebrate the holidays at their luxurious Palm Springs home. Joining them are her sister Silda, a newly recovering alcoholic; their son Trip, who produces cheesy reality TV shows; and their daughter Brooke, a depressive writer who has brought along the manuscript of her latest book, a memoir about a tragic incident in the family’s past. Battles of the '60s are refought, conservative ideals clash against liberal passions, dirty linen is pulled out of the closets.

Playwright Jon Robin Baitz, making his return to the stage after working in television for the past six years (he created the series "Brothers & Sisters"), has explored the generational divide before, most memorably in The Substance of Fire, which played at the Mitzi back in 1992. But Baitz, 49, is older now and less willing to pick sides. What works best about Other Desert Cities is how effectively he switches his allegiances as each member of the family gets a chance to present grievances and defenses about past wrongs. Alas, that same fair-mindedness also undermines the ending, at least for me.

But even that didn’t spoil the evening. For director Joe Mantello, Baitz’s one-time romantic partner, has mounted a production that otherwise glistens.  John Lee Beatty’s living room set is so creamy and ostentatiously unostentatious that you know instantly what kind of people live in it.  Same goes for David Zinn’s spot-on costumes, particularly the women’s shoes, which are so expressive—and amusing—that they should get a curtain call of their own.

Yet it is Channing, Keach, Lavin, Marvel and Sadoski who deserve the biggest ovation.  Baitz reportedly turned down the chance to open the play directly on Broadway because he wanted to make sure he got the best actors for the roles—and not just Hollywood names with the power to draw audiences (click here to read his thoughts about his play). 

He was smart to hold out. What he got are actors who are equally adept at delivering both the humor and the pathos in his play and who are as interesting to watch while they’re quietly listening—or in Lavin’s case, even sleeping—as when they’re delivering center stage speeches. 

They make a believable family too.  Channing and Lavin are totally convincing as sisters struggling with unfinished business of their own. Keach and Sadoski seem to share the same DNA as large men who deliberately make the choice to hide behind facades of deceptively even-keeled bonhomie.  And Marvel and Channing, both powerhouse performers, capture the essence of the mothers and daughters who are emotionally linked despite the surface differences that may threaten to keep them apart.  

What binds this family, as it does most, is love, even when unrecognized. What makes this production so remarkable is the actors’ love of their craft, which, thankfully, is on brilliant display.

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