It takes just a few minutes after the lights go up on Anne Sheffield's beautifully designed set for Arizona Theatre Company's Other Desert Cities that you begin to think, haven't I seen this before?
In Jon Robin Baitz's play we are introduced to a dysfunctional family gathered on Christmas Eve, where it is hinted (and later fully revealed) that all is not well, although the characters are able to establish themselves and some of their issues amid some smart, funny dialogue. Things get increasingly tense until, when intermission rolls around, you know you have seen plenty of plays like this before. The specifics have changed, but the form, the setting, the general type of characters and the way the story is proceeding are like dozens of "dysfunctional-families-whose-members-get-after-one-another-until-they-blow-up-and-surprises-are-revealed" plays that populate dramatic literature.
In some ways it's inevitable. The subject of families provides plenty of fodder for drama, and comedy, for that matter. But a playwright better make sure that, if following the straight play formula, the characters are richly drawn so that we care about them, the dialogue is smart and there is nothing clumsy in the way the story unfolds.
Baitz's play gets only some of these right. The consequence is a story with moments of sharpness and glimmers of real passion, but one that often seems derivative to the point of being, well, stale.
The circumstances here unfold around the homecoming of Brooke (Paige Lindsey White) and her brother Trip (Will Mobley) at their parents' upscale home in Palm Springs. Polly (Anne Allgood) and Lyman (Lawrence Pressman) Wyeth are well-to-do ex-show biz people. Polly and her sister, Silda (Robin Moseley), were a successful writing team and Lyman was a TV actor adept at death scenes. They have now retreated into staunch Reagan conservatism and are bigwigs in the inner circle of the GOP crowd in Southern California. Brooke, who lives in New England—about as far away from GOP-landia as possible—is a writer of fiction who has had a successful novel, but who, we find out in dribs and drabs, has had writer's block and a nervous breakdown, and has not been home in six years. She easily shows contempt for her parents, especially their politics. Younger brother Trip lives in L.A., where he is a producer of a Judge Judy-type reality show. And he just wants the family's time together to be as pleasant as possible, suggesting that all mention of politics and other loaded issues be banned.
But Brooke has news: She has completed another book, which should see publication within the year. But it's not a novel; it's a memoir. And it's about the fallout from older brother Henry's radical anti-war actions in the '70s, which, according to her, embarrassed their parents, whose response led Henry to commit suicide.
Ah. The family's dirty little secret.
And it has to do with a "ghost"—a dead or absent son. I can think of two plays that ATC has produced in the last couple of seasons in which a dead son has been a ghost stalking family members to their great detriment. And those are not the only two in the canon of troubled family plays.
Still, Baitz manages to engage us with a setup that takes a huge hit when all has been revealed, and we are reminded that judgments made based on one's perception of events are dangerous and likely destructive. Be careful of what you "know" to be the "truth."
Although this is a good production, there are things that get in the way. Part of it stems from the script; others from directorial and acting choices.
One is the chronology of events given us. The play takes place in 2004. Henry was 15 when he got into trouble, in 1972. Granting a liberal amount of time for the Wyeths' marriage and childbearing, Brooke would have to be at least 40 and Trip in his late-ish 30s. But neither this Brooke nor Trip appear, or behave, those ages; they seem much younger. It may seem a small thing, but it was distracting.
The character of Brooke (and White's characterization) is also problematic. She comes off as a whiny, narcissistic, self-righteous victim, which makes her hard to like. But Baitz sets her up to be the one we sympathize with in the battle of publication of book versus parental wishes to keep quiet. We need to see, initially especially, a bit more of her vulnerability, which her depression and breakdown must represent. Baitz gives the actor a difficult job.
The other characters are well embodied. Allgood's Polly is a force to be reckoned with, and Lyman, shaken and fearful, feels that "pretending is not a bad thing." Silda is a small, plum role, and Moseley takes full advantage of the license Baitz has given.
Often Baitz's characters seem to represent points of view rather than real people. This is particularly true of Trip, a woefully underdeveloped character. In addition, the characters often seem not to be conversing at all, but delivering monologues, particularly as the play reaches its climax. Overall, they are quite transparent players in a plot, and while all characters are, in fact, exactly that, most playwrights give them enough fleshing out so they are not so transparent. These characters seem more strategically developed than organically so.
Could director James Still have helped his actors deal with such weaknesses? Possibly. He also imposes some odd blocking which has characters facing upstage while speaking, so their words are lost on us.
Although it travels a well-worn path, Baitz's Other Desert Cities deserves to be seen. Even though the play's flaws reveal themselves in this production, it engages us enough to remind us powerfully of the dangers of judgment and blame.