A play about the old social aristocracy of the Republican Party? How unconventional — and how unexpectedly bankable, given the new political order in Washington. Actually, there’s little serious political discourse in “Other Desert Cities,” Jon Robin Baitz’s new play about the warfare that erupts in the household of a retired ambassador of the Old Guard when a wayward daughter writes a tell-all book. But while the revelations are confined to family matters and involve no political scandals (more’s the pity), scribe has created genuinely interesting characters and endowed them with enough intelligence and wit to turn their domestic crisis into crackling drama.
The magic touch of director Joe Mantello (“Wicked,” “Assassins,” you name it) is imprinted on this flawlessly executed Lincoln Center production. Just read the design details: The California context is instantly established by the creamy furniture and showy fire pit dominating John Lee Beatty’s set design of a Palm Springs home in 2004. The tanned characters are presented in tennis whites and lit in the golden glow of Kenneth Posner’s sunny lighting palette. And the fly in the sunscreen lotion, a visitor from New York, is easily identified by the dark, drab rags she’s wearing, courtesy of David Zinn.
Once they open their mouths, in bright and brittle dialogue loaded with subtextual meaning, the Wyeth family members tell us a lot about themselves. Having retired in comfort after serving as a foreign ambassador under Ronald Reagan, Lyman Wyeth (an immovable man-rock in Stacy Keach’s nicely calibrated perf) would appreciate it if his family would avoid unpleasant subjects and just be happy.
Fat chance of that. In a performance bristling with the energy (and danger) of a high-tension wire, Stockard Channing sets off sparks as Lyman’s wife, Polly, a Nancy Reagan clone who clearly calls the shots in this house. Their watchful son Trip (Thomas Sadoski, who makes watching look interesting) plays the part of the family pacifist.
There will be no peace in this family, not even on Christmas Eve, once Polly tries to manipulate two recent family arrivals: her daughter, who has flown in from New York, and her sister, who is fresh from rehab.
Elizabeth Marvel (“The Little Foxes,” “Hedda Gabler”) turns in another memorable performance as the prodigal Wyeth daughter, Brooke. Projecting tension in every muscle of her body, Marvel captures the nerve-jangling anxiety of a liberal-minded author who has broken through her writer’s block with a book that will shake the family to its core.
Linda Lavin does her customary high-wire act as Silda Grauman, the rehabbed (but still shaky) sister who speaks her free-thinking thoughts, no matter how outrageous. The fur is bound to fly when Polly learns that Silda had a hand in Brooke’s book.
Baitz (“Substance of Fire”) couldn’t be more sensitive to the complicated, often painfully funny dynamic of high-strung mother-daughter (and sister-sister) relationships. He also understands the subtle tensions that flare up in politically conflicted households.
But after a few teasing skirmishes — like the one in which Lyman defends the Iraq war on the word of Colin Powell (“most trusted man in America”) about weapons of mass destruction — the political theme is dropped. Brooke’s book will contain no provocative details about Nancy and the Gipper, after all, but much melodramatic sturm and drang involving a long-ago death in the family that nobody wants to talk about.
It’s a valid dramatic device for the Wyeths to reveal themselves through their reactions to the secret revealed in Brooke’s book. But surely this fascinating family has more interesting topics to fight about.