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Playwright Jon Robin Baitz’s ‘Other Desert Cities’ is a strong serio-comedy

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NEW YORK — When the eternally promising playwright Jon Robin Baitz was lured to network television to write the series “Brothers and Sisters,” the signs pointed to another excellent stage craftsman lost to Hollywood. Boy, were those signs misleading. Baitz is back now in theater’s embrace with “Other Desert Cities,” a crackling new serio-comedy that affirms his place as a leader of the dramatic pack.

The play, the first of Baitz’s to reach Broadway after two decades of provocative off-Broadway hits and near-misses (“The Substance of Fire,” “Ten Unknowns”), had its official opening Thursday night at the Booth Theatre. (His adaptation of “Hedda Gabler” previously was produced on Broadway.) “Cities” transferred there after a run this year at Lincoln Center Theater and, if anything, director Joe Mantello’s superb staging has ripened, thanks to the deepening synchronicity of the performances and the additions to the cast of Rachel Griffiths and Judith Light.

They join original ensemble members Stacy Keach, Stockard Channing and Thomas Sadoski in this absorbing tale, aglow with authenticity, of an old Hollywood couple (Keach and Channing) from the circle of Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s close friends. They’ve retired to a plushly vanilla life in Palm Springs and a lively ongoing friction with their surviving children, reality-TV producer Trip (Sadoski) and blocked novelist Brooke (Griffiths). It’s gifted, depressive Brooke who’s the chief giver of grief: on this occasion, in the form of a soon-to-be published memoir that threatens to illuminate for the world the most painful chapter of their lives.

Plays about family secrets sometimes creak under the weight of their manipulative exposition, but “Other Desert Cities” is that rarity among plot-de­pendent family sagas: Its characters are not mere comic instruments or disgorgers of revelation. They bend evocatively and, under Baitz’s exceptional microscope, manage in some cases to reveal themselves to be the opposite of what we’re initially led to believe.

Part of this is due to the smoothness of Baitz’s dialogue, revealed in the sharp tongues of tart elders and smart offspring: With her withering observations, Channing’s tanned, terrifying Polly, a onetime high-flying screenwriter with dipsomaniac sister Silda (Light, in a terrifically resonant riff on a mainstay supporting character), seems for the longest time to be one tough cookie. Baitz, though, is a great unmasker, and nowhere in his writing has he before characterized so tenderly a hard-shelled woman.

The refined caliber of acting gives the playwright’s words their satisfying potency. Griffiths and Sadoski excel as the alternately aggressive and defensive progeny of parents far more conservative than they. Keach, continuing in the path of the fine Lear he portrayed at Shakespeare Theatre Company, conveys the fading leonine strength of a prideful patriarch. And Channing’s turn as a Nancy Reagan acolyte, stoic and seething at the very same time, is remarkable.

“Other Desert Cities” — beautifully adorned by John Lee Beatty on sets, David Zinn on costumes and Kenneth Posner on lighting — threads through the storytelling the sense that, somehow, the political culture in which Polly and Keach’s Lyman thrived might have played a role in the tragedy that Brooke seeks to expose. But it’s the more vital conjuring of politics here, the emotional transactions between protective parents and wounded children, that stamp this evening as Baitz’s breakthrough.

Other Desert Cities

by Jon Robin Baitz, directed by Joe Mantello. Sound, Jill BC DuBoff; original music, Justin Ellington. About 2 hours 15 minutes. At Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th St.,
New York. Call 212-239-6200 or
visit www.telecharge.com.

© The Washington Post Company