Helmer Joe Mantello did a savvy job of recasting “Other Desert Cities” for its Broadway transfer. When the show preemed at Lincoln Center earlier this year, it wasn’t clear that Jon Robin Baitz’s tightly wrapped family drama about a patrician clan of Old Guard California Republicans even had a leading character. That ensemble vibe survives in this production, but with the magnetic Rachel Griffiths (“Six Feet Under”) now taking the lead in the part of the renegade daughter from New York, it’s easier to overlook the artifices of the plot and surrender to the drama.
A stalwart Stacy Keach and the invincible Stockard Channing reprise their respective roles as Lyman Wyeth, a former movie star who went on to become a powerful GOP bigwig, and his wife, Polly, as socially charming and politically calculating as her dear friend Nancy Reagan.
Thomas Sadoski also makes a welcome return as their son, Trip, a good-natured producer of trashy reality-TV shows and the kind of attentive son who would spend Christmas Eve with his parents. (The white-and-gold artificial Christmas tree in the living room is set designer John Lee Beatty’s witty way of capturing the arid holiday spirit in Palm Springs, circa 2004.)
In the context of this bleached-out desert setting, it falls on the characters to supply all the color. In the original production, Linda Lavin made an especially vibrant character of Silda Grauman, Polly’s free-thinking, hard-living alcoholic sister, fresh out of rehab and come to live with her sister and brother-in-law. That role, which opened up when Lavin went into Nicky Silvers’ new play “The Lyons,” went to Judith Light.
Light (who played another straight-shooter in “Lombardi”) makes sharp work here of Silda’s outspoken views on politics, religion and her sister’s pretensions. But because she isn’t as vivid as her predecessor, the thesp makes it easier for Griffiths to claim centerstage as Brooke Wyeth, the prodigal daughter who arrives with the manuscript of a memoir that accuses her parents of driving their older son to suicide.
Newly divorced and recovering from a breakdown that had her hospitalized for years, Brooke isn’t the most stable person in the world. Elizabeth Marvel’s provocative perf came from that vulnerable state of mental instability, making Brooke’s volatile character seem dangerous. In Griffiths’ deeply compassionate perf, she comes across as more rational and a lot healthier: more thoughtful than brooding, intellectually curious rather than paranoid.
Neither of these insightful performances, however, can solve the improbabilities of the melodramatic plot, which hangs on a family secret long buried and implausibly never discussed. And while Baitz (“The Substance of Fire”) gives his articulate characters the wit and intelligence to go to battle on any number of ideological issues that divide them, he studiously avoids bringing up anything as lively as politics.