Amid the cacti and tennis courts, betrayal lies in wait. The comfortably arid retirement of Lyman and Polly Wyeth — impeccably groomed survivors of Old Hollywood and California Republican politics — is hijacked one Christmas Eve by a daughter with festering emotional scars, substance-abuse issues and the galleys of a memoir threatening to open to public scrutiny the Wyeths’ painful, shocking secret.
Sounds kind of juicy, no? Not many plays these days unfold as temptingly as does Jon Robin Baitz’s cunningly compassionate “Other Desert Cities,” mounted with exemplary style and devastating impact at Arena Stage by director Kyle Donnelly. Nor do many works by modern playwrights parcel out the payoff with the hypersensitive antennae for poignant family dynamics that Baitz displays on this occasion.
Enhanced immensely by the riveting performances of Larry Bryggman, Helen Carey and Emily Donahoe as Lyman, Polly and daughter Brooke, “Other Desert Cities” leaves you a little drained, in the way that bracing theater can act as a stealthy purgative. The most surprising outcome here might be any spectator unmoved by the final gusts of anguish from Bryggman, in his remarkable turn as Lyman— a suffering quietly echoed in Donahoe’s expertly muffled gasps.
“Other Desert Cities” ended a well-received, seven-month Broadway run last June. In Arena’s Fichandler Stage, Donnelly and set designer Kate Edmunds successfully rethink the production for theater-in-the-round. As all of the action takes place in 2004 in the Wyeths’ living room — elegantly and affluently “mod” in retro Don-and-Megan-Draper fashion — the enveloping embrace of the Fichandler effortlessly accommodates the play. Carpeted in white, with desert accents in the swanky stone bar and low-rise walls, the set is dominated smartly by a central conversation pit and that variety of metal fireplace that was suave in the era of bell-bottoms and Nehru jackets.
As day turns into night at the Wyeths’, the fireplace coals will be stoked. And the fire that burns for the rest of the evening will not only seem to warm the room, but also feel as if it’s intended as an eternal flame.
The mourned, missing member of the nuclear family is eldest son Henry, long ago implicated — to the horror of Reagan pals Lyman, a former movie actor, and Polly, an ex-screenwriter — in a radical underground bombing. To the consternation of her parents and other brother, reality-TV producer Trip (Scott Drummond), novelist Brooke has staked her sanity — and the rebirth of her writing career — on giving her account of Henry’s life and death.
Is Brooke’s act one of selflessness or its opposite? A defiant stroke in the name of truth or payback for mom and dad’s narcissistic spin control of history? One of the strengths of Baitz’s script is the manner in which it continually squeezes each of the characters into a rhetorical vice and then requires them by force of will and wit to wriggle their way out. (Although the generations clash politically — conservative parents, liberal offspring — ideology is far from the most heated topic on a sultry Yuletide in Palm Springs.)
For good measure, the playwright adds a toxic fifth wheel, Polly’s alcoholic sister and screenwriting partner Silda, portrayed here with maybe a shade too much amiability by Martha Hackett. Silda’s jaundiced (and wildly funny) takes pour onto the play’s mechanics like battery acid. Hackett commendably gets off some of the zingers. Still, the portrayal is built on a flakiness that makes Silda seem, at times, too easy to dismiss.
Playing grown children mesmerized and shamed by their folks’ star power, Drummond and Donahoe affectingly convey the lifelong turmoil involved in wanting too much to make one’s parents happy. (Neither character has found a satisfactory relationship of his or her own.) Donahoe, in particular, excels in imbuing Brooke with a sense of woeful dissipation; a lifetime of anger containment has so exhausted Brooke that she seems ready to implode.
With a mother like Carey’s immaculately armored Polly — dressed chicly in arroyo hues by costume designer Nan Cibula-Jenkins — you understand why. Polly may want the best for her kids, but that desire has been applied like a thumb to their carotid arteries. Her ferocity and piercing intelligence are admirable. Yet a seeming deficiency of empathy has dangerously deepened her detachment and reinforced her children’s cynicism.
“I don’t like weakness,” Carey’s Polly says, in cadences making you ever more aware of the pit in your stomach. “You can die from too much sensitivity in this life.”
Bryggman’s Lyman is convincingly conflicted about Brooke, at the same time more conciliatory and aggrieved than his wife over the memoir’s impending publication. The actor, too, lets us see how Lyman would have been a sturdy contract player at Paramount and, later, a Reagan ambassadorial appointee. And then, rewardingly, he shows us something more deeply felt, in the “reveal” full of heartache that is the play’s most moving and difficult moment.
Is the resulting recounting of unlikely events wholly credible? That is a question you’re sure to consider in the car or Metro ride home. The actors’ job is to convince us of their own total belief. And on that score, there is no room for doubt. Through the regret and conviction and love expressed in the eyes of Bryggman and Carey and Donahoe, one is compelled to the view that how they tell it is exactly the way it was.
by Jon Robin Baitz. Directed by Kyle Donnelly. Set, Kate Edmunds; costumes, Nan Cibula-Jenkins; lighting, Nancy Schertler; original music and sound, David Van Tieghem. About 21 / 2 hours. Through May 26 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300. www.arenastage.org.