All five people in Other Desert Cities, the 2011 Pulitzer finalist drama by Jon Robin Baitz, now at Theatre Three, talk to each other in a way only characters in grim, smug New York plays like this do. In complete sentences. Complete paragraphs. Using words like "hagiography" (which an actress in this production mispronounces, by the way). And unlike real human beings and especially unlike real family members who'd speak in a shorthanded code among themselves without uttering run-on phrases such as "my brother, who joined a cult and then planted a bomb at an Army recruitment center and then committed suicide by jumping off a ferry."
That right there is awkward exposition and it's hard for actors, even the good ones director Jac Alder has assembled for his cast at Theatre Three, to turn that hash into conversational caviar. And Other Desert Cities, at two and a quarter hours, serves up a lot of hash. The play only gets really good in the last five minutes of the second act in a scene performed with such blistering passion, it almost makes the previous 130 minutes worthwhile. Almost.
Set on Christmas Eve 2004 in the Palm Springs home of wealthy, staunchly Republican oldsters Lyman and Polly Wyeth (played by John S. Davies and Connie Coit), the play regurgitates some of the oldest, stalest dramatic tropes. Family secrets spilled during a holiday gathering — check. Screwed-up adult siblings who blame their failures on their stick-up-the-ass parents — check. The sudden blurting of the Big Secret that changes everyone's lives forever — yep, that's in there. (For previous references, check out half of Shakespeare's tragedies, every installment of Days of Our Lives and any Christmas movie starring Diane Keaton.)
In Baitz's overwrought collection of cliche plot points, everyone in the Wyeth family has an ugly secret they're stuffing down with alcohol or prescription drugs. Politically liberal, depression-prone writer-daughter Brooke (Lydia Mackay) has flown in from Manhattan to spend the holidays with her emotionally constipated parents. They greet her less than enthusiastically in their dully tasteful, retro-furnished living room. (Scenery by Alder renders the Wyeth home in a visually confusing mix of Danish Modern, Pier One Chinese and whatever-the-hell-was-in-the-theater-warehouse.)
Brooke comes bearing a manuscript of her unpublished tell-all autobiography, which goes into detail about the death of her troubled older brother, the one described above. The New Yorker wants to publish a chunk of it, which horrifies Mom and Dad, who don't want to dredge up the stuff about the hippie-bomber son.
Baitz seems to have modeled the Wyeths (note the use of the WASPy artists' surname) on Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Lyman Wyeth's backstory is that he was an actor in Hollywood shoot-'em-ups but rose to an ambassadorship and GOP chairman post in the Reagan years. Polly, friends with Bushes, Buckleys and Bloomingdales, once wrote screenplays with her sister Silda (wonderfully whiskey-throated Cindee Mayfield). It's not explained how the Wyeths got rich — let's assume insider trading or real estate flipping — but they're comfortably retired and willing to buy the mansion next door for suicidal Brooke. Poor Aunt Silda, like her niece a bleeding heart prone to addiction, now lives in the Wyeths' spare room after yet another stint in rehab. On her entrance in the first act, she says, "I have more Nazi dreams than Elie Wiesel," a line probably meant to be funny (the audience at the performance reviewed let it go by un-laughed-at).
The Wyeths have another son, pot-smoking goofball Trip (Jeff Burleson, doing bouncy sitcom mugging). He's the producer of a trashy daytime TV series called Jury of Your Peers, which assigns C-level celebs to jury duty deciding small-claims disputes (a more original idea than this play). Trip's the odd man out in his family, too young to remember much about the dead brother, and sniffed at by snooty older sis Brooke, who claims not to watch TV (don't you just hate people who say that?) and who hasn't bothered to catch a single episode of bro's show.
Everyone in this clan is horrible and they all have such contempt for each other the T3 actors seem frozen in permanent scowls. If Baitz was going for some West Coast version of August: Osage County, he's missed what made that Pulitzer-winning saga such a masterpiece. Wacky as those drunk, incestuous Oklahomans are in Tracy Letts' play, they all talk and act like a real family. Granted, a family that's shit-house-rat crazy. But they say and do things we've seen our own relatives say and do. Baitz just has no ear for authentic-sounding conversation. His Wyeths are as contrived as stuffed-shirted characters in New Yorker short stories. You can almost feel the actors straining against the strict confines of the script's punctuation.
And when Baitz tries to be funny, like with that Nazi line, it's painful. "Who has Christmas Eve at the country club?" "Jews, that's who." Oy. Or this exchange between Trip and Brooke: "Who am I, Rudolph the goddamn reindeer?" "You do have a shiny nose."
How many drafts did that bit survive and why?
Other Desert Cities was a smash hit on Broadway two years ago starring Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach as the parents and Rachel Griffiths as Brooke. That's first-class talent carrying a second-rate script. Theatre Three boasts some of Dallas' strongest actors in its cast, too, notably Davies and Mayfield. They do bruised emotions superbly, moving as if their characters are bone-weary from sadness. When Davies finally releases Lyman's pent-up rage in the final moments, the play at last feels like it has achieved an honest human sentiment.
As Brooke, Lydia Mackay is under-served by Alder's direction and by Bruce Coleman's costume design. What sophisticated female New York writer flies cross-country in December in a cheap gray sweater, silky tank top and ripped-knee jeans? Mackay, a beautiful woman head to toe, is forced to wear this ghastly ensemble in every scene.
The weakest performance is by Coit, too spindly and wispily blonde to make Polly a fearsome tiger mother. For her character's big second-act speech, she's planted in a corner of the in-the-square arena, meaning a fourth of the audience sees only the tightly clipped bun on the back of her tiny head.
They down a lot of drinks in Other Desert Cities, a play that leaves us thirsting for better dramas.