American plays about troubled families are a dime a dozen. But American plays which do more than merely flirt with politics are scarce, and those attempting to meld the personal and political, like Jon Robin Baitz’s Pulitzer finalist “Other Desert Cities,” are rarest of all. Some of Baitz’s plot mechanics may date back to Ibsen, but so does his sturdy dramaturgy. The combination of complex characters, thoughtful conflicts and outstanding acting makes Robert Egan’s Taper production an absorbing, healing point of light during our chilly winter solstice.
The physical warmth of Takeshi Kata’s set, an elegant living room in a moneyed Palm Springs family manse circa 2004, is complemented by act one’s likably unforced family prickliness. Egan, formerly the Taper’s producing director, marks a notable return by easing us into the Wyeths’ practiced routines of attack and parry.
Great and good friends of Ron and Nancy, Polly and Lyman Wyeth (JoBeth Williams and Robert Foxworth) are bound to strike sparks against their “lefty” novelist daughter Brooke (Robin Weigert), ensconced on Long Island’s eastern shore after a long rehab stint. As good as all are at button pushing, no button ever sets off the ICBMs, because they know not to dwell on the messy stuff like that Iraq War business, fomented by their friends the Bushes in other desert cities halfway across the globe.
And when things threaten to pop – as they sometimes will, given Polly’s blowsy, alcoholic sister Silda (Jeannie Berlin) lurking in tenuous AA sobriety – cheerful son Trip (Michael Weston) is primed with the defusing techniques he’s learned while producing a cheesy reality TV series back in LA.
Eventually, Brooke does ignite World War III with the announcement that she’s broken her writer’s block. The New Yorker is about to publish her nonfiction story of her older brother Henry, who turned on, tuned in and dropped out during the Vietnam protest era. Her manuscript details her parents’ public betrayal of their boy when he joined the radical underground, got involved in a fatal bombing and eventually committed suicide.
Henry’s is the Ghost of Christmas Past which haunts all the sad, conflicted Wyeths, in ways they and we only gradually discover. The shared family narratives, once brought to light, brush many of the major ideological conflicts of the past 50-odd years, including the implications of party loyalty (especially within the GOP); the personal cost of political activism; and the debt each generation owes to those preceding and following it.
It’s a tribute to Egan’s skill that for all the revelations Baitz sends along in a sometimes less than graceful fashion, the stakes escalate believably and the tension, once set in motion, never flags.
And you can feel the cast’s hunger for the kind of juicy material so infrequently served to them in any medium. Foxworth brilliantly etches a one-time cowboy actor who became a fat-cat ambassador and now wrestles with the legacy of all his choices. Williams and Berlin aren’t a particularly believable pair of sisters, and Williams has yet to completely embody Polly’s majestic self-certainty, but they are steely adversaries with a splendid way with Baitz’s best bon mots.
It’s the younger generation which really “makes” this production. Trip’s role isn’t central to the plot, but he’s a vital buffer for his testy relatives and, in Weston’s hands, absolutely essential to establishing the right performance drive. Though on the periphery, his insights and indefatigable glee keep both the Wyeths and the show out of the shoals of self-pity.
And Weigert, so unforgettable as the gross, gallant Calamity Jane in HBO’s “Deadwood,” knows her way around out-of-joint times. She creates a riveting portrait of a disturbed artist in mid-recovery mode, one for whom art is the only refuge. Her moral choices – do I publish and let my parents’ reputation perish? Do I bury the book and bury my very self? – are the play’s lifeblood, and Weigert generously, vividly shares Brooke’s thinking with us, qualm by painful qualm.