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Other Desert Cities: How a Memoir Dropped Into a Family Gathering Can Wreck Christmas

The setup:

Jon Robin Baitz has had a number of plays well-received by critics and audiences, but there seemed to be a consensus that even more might be expected of him. Other Desert Cities has been hailed by many as answering this need, as it was praised in its off-Broadway debut in January, 2011, and received even more acclaim in its transfer to Broadway, with some changes in text and cast, in November of that year. The play was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2012, a Tony Award nominee, and the Alley has done well in bringing it to Houston this early in its career. The execution:

This is a family drama, set in 2004, with strong generational conflict, and with sharp political differences, and the five well-crafted characters cling to the ideas that make sense of their lives, and of their livelihoods. The setting is the opulent, tasteful home of Polly Wyeth and Lyman Wyeth, retired from show business, wealthy and very Republican, and friends of Ron and Nancy Reagan. The pooled estate overlooks barren, treeless mountains that loom large upstage, thanks to the skill of set designer Takeshi Kata - these are powerful symbols that remind us that nature and reality lie beyond the manicured wealth that has carved luxury from a desert. This play is many things, but it is most of all a search for truth.

Early on in the day before Christmas, we meet Polly, fresh from a tennis game, Lyman, their visiting son Trip, producer of a television courtroom reality show, and their visiting daughter, Brooke, whose novel was hailed on publication in 1998, and whose writing block has finally been broken through. Also in residence is Polly's sister, Silda, a recovering alcoholic who had a slip after five years of sobriety, but is once again off the sauce.

There is a sixth character, never seen, but perhaps the protagonist of the play, the eldest son Henry, who had committed suicide when Trip was five. Henry, and the Wyeth family, are the subject of Brooke's new book, which turns out to be a memoir rather than a novel. This is revealed, and copies given to Polly and Lyman, who, predictably, shudder at the impending public intrusion into their self-indulgent and very comfortable life-style.

Baitz created the television show Brothers and Sisters, and has a deft way with one-liners, so that Act One makes up in witty badinage what it lacks in drama, as this act mainly introduces the characters and lets us see them in action, as Brooke throws her hand grenade of "news" into the holiday bonfire. Linda Thorson portrays Polly, and dominates the stage with a striking presence of white hair, fitness-model svelteness, and no idea at all that she is a bully under her charm. She runs the household, and the play. Richard Bekins plays Lyman as graceful, accommodating and a bit self-effacing, but that may be the only way to survive with the powerhouse Polly.

Audrie Neenan plays Silda, and makes credible and interesting her wry humor. Alex Hurt plays Trip and brings a low-key authenticity to his role, chiefly that of attempted peace-keeper. Elizabeth Bunch plays Brooke, and communicates the seriousness of her intent and the desperate need she has to publish the memoir. She adds neither warmth nor charm, perhaps appropriately since she is written as depressed. Both the adult children seem more childlike than adult, and the sense that Brooke had a successful writing career, and Trip was heavily experienced in television, has been referenced but not really delineated by Baitz.

The family has learned not to discuss politics, as agreement is impossible and chasms can't be bridged. Though there are sporadic comments about the changes in the Republican Party, the subject is not really explored. Instead, Act Two provides a series of revelations, from several family sources, that require Brooke to reconsider whether her memoir of Henry is as truthful as she planned. These are unexpected, startling, and a sharp turn from the domestic comedy of Act One into the dry, arid desert of unattractive truth, echoing some of the iconic lines of contemporary dramas - "The truth is out there" and "You can't handle the truth". These developments elevate the play to a more serious level, and the fact that much of the household conversation involves strongly-held beliefs, makes this a play about ideas, though short of a play for intellectuals.

The work is directed by Jackson Gay, and she keeps the pace brisk, but there is a disparity between the stage-devouring power of Thorson and the more naturalistic acting of the other characters; my own preference would be to empower the others rather than to pull Thorson back. Costume design is by Jessica Ford, and I was a bit surprised by the lack of style from the well-to-do adult children, both artists in their different ways, and by the skirt well above-the-knee worn by the mature Polly, attractive though her legs were. Lighting design by Paul Whitaker is excellent, and the gradually emerging twilight on the mountains is especially effective.

Baitz has provided five roles for gifted actors - in Manhattan, Stockard Channing created the role of Polly, and Stacy Keach that of Lyman, and Linda Lavin played Silda off-Broadway and Judith Light on Broadway. It's more than likely that this play will have legs and be widely produced, as thespians gravitate toward its dramatic potential and colorful roles.

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The plot is not organic, wherein developments flow from earlier events, but is rather fueled by a series of injections of new information in Act Two. This can be interesting, but suggests craftsmanship rather than inspiration.

The verdict:

Playwright Baitz has given us a play with wit, moments of fascination, a sprinkling of ideas, and the familiar situation of inter-family conflicts, and that is a lot to welcome. But, as good as this is, it may well be that Baitz can do even better, and that the stark beauty of the mountains may be a reminder that the magic of theatrical truth remains elusive.

Other Desert Cities continues through February 2, at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas St. For information or ticketing, call 713-220-5700 or contact www.alleytheatre.org.

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