Other Desert Cities
As we approach the holiday season—prime time for family gatherings—I'm reminded of how such gatherings can resemble warfare. There are the usual accusations regarding political or social ideologies. Someone usually lobs a grenade that lands quietly, only to violently explode later. There's usually one sniper—someone who fires killer barbs without warning and takes you down instantly and entirely. And of course there's ugly, relentless self-preservation, at any cost.
As I watched the Wyeth family drama unfold on the Brüka Theatre mainstage during a special preview performance of Other Desert Cities, this family warfare felt familiarly awful and unsettling to me.
The Pulitzer-finalist play written by Jon Robin Baitz captures beautifully the tension that can bubble just under the surface in any family, even the seemingly perfect ones, and it’s as if you can see everyone girding their loins and preparing for battle with every twitch of the lips or crossing of arms.
Set in 2004 in Palm Springs, California, against the backdrop of an actual war in other desert cities far away in Iraq, the Wyeth family gathers for Christmas. Polly Wyeth (Veronica Frasier), the formidable, sharp-tongued matriarch, is Jewish, and thus the day isn’t too sacred to forego a game of tennis, shopping and dinner at the country club. Lyman Wyeth (Tom Jacobs) is a former war movie actor and old friend of Ronald Reagan’s who later served as an ambassador. Much more demonstrative and sensitive to conflict than his wife, Lyman is just thrilled to have his two kids, writer Brooke (Megan Fitzpatrick) and reality TV producer Trip (Bryce Alexander Keil), home for the holidays.
Brooke, now a New Yorker, is fresh out of a psychiatric hospital, where she spent a year coping with depression following a Wyeth family tragedy. Now she’s home with big news: Her second book, a memoir, is about to be published. But the truths it reveals about her family’s history could do irreparable damage.
Old-guard Republicans in a tiny enclave, surrounded by Hollywood lefties, Polly and Lyman have carved out for themselves a comfortable lifestyle. The buried secrets the book unearths could destroy it. Once hoping for their blessing, Brooke now fully realizes “the indentured servitude of having a family”: She would face total exile from her family and other potentially grenade-like effects upon the book’s publication.
Brooke’s greatest ally is Polly’s sister, Silda (Evonne Kezios), a wisecracking alcoholic who’s been living with the Wyeths as she struggles to stay on the wagon. She has the best, funniest lines of the play, and Kezios’ big voice and crackling wit perceptibly amp up the energy in the room as soon as she sets foot in it. Frasier’s Polly is her foil; she’s at once steely and likable—pitch perfect for a character that, as we learn, isn’t quite the superficial society lady we’d pegged her for.
While Baitz’s dialogue is clearly intended to deliver laughs, it often feels strained, weighed down by too much subtext. It takes just the right delivery by actors who know how to land their lines, to have gravity and lightness at once. Kezios and Frasier do this really well. But while Fitzpatrick captures Brooke’s intensity and nervous tendencies, it’s too much. Her hand-wringing, foot bouncing and excessive running of hands through hair are at first helpful in building tension, but quickly feel like overacting. Her reactions seem inauthentic and over the top, making it hard to sympathize with her.
The last 20 minutes bring a startling revelation—a grenade that has lain dormant for too long. It showcases both Frasier’s and Jacobs’ acting chops. And it may move you to tears to realize just how much of what Polly says is true: “Families get terrorized by their weakest members.”