“Other Desert Cities,” a play by Jon Robin Baitz and directed for the Hampton Theatre Company by Sarah Hunnewell, portrays a less-than-festive Christmas Eve at the Wyeth house. It seems that even the family’s wealth, success and close personal relationships with the Reagan White House can’t save them from themselves during the 2004 holiday season.
Nobody, it seems, is interested in togetherness. Nor are they about to discuss old wounds that were created when a family member committed suicide.
The parents, Polly and Lyman, are affluent, retired Hollywood types who now live in Palm Springs, California, and they are miserable. Their daughter, Brooke, a writer whose unflattering portrait of the family is about to be published, barely clings to sanity after a complete mental breakdown. Aunt Silda is fresh from rehab, and the couple’s only living son, Trip, is stuck in the middle and holding on by a thread.
“You know that sign on the highway where you can either turn off for Palm Springs or keep going to ‘Other Desert Cities’? I’m always tempted to just keep on driving, you know,” laments Brooke, inhabited with skill and precision by Morgan Duke Vaughan.
As Brooke, Ms. Vaughan’s physical representation of the role doesn’t hide the fact that this visit with her parents is stress inducing. Her constant, yet not distracting, anxious ticks and shakes add depth and resonance to the character. It would be easy to overdo it but the actor plays the physicality of the role brilliantly, which kept this reviewer on the edge of her seat.
Polly, played with strength and sophistication by Diana Marbury, is the matriarch of the house. She keeps the family in line and presses everyone’s buttons to make sure they are consistently cared for or shamed into order. Ms. Wyeth rivals Emily Post in her push for propriety. For her, the way things appear seem to be more important than what they actually are.
Ms. Marbury’s tight-lipped grin, and disappointed sighs that often precede biting comments toward her daughter—such as, “Families get terrorized by their weakest member”—were effective and on the mark.
Former silver screen-star-turned-Republican-hotshot, Lyman, played by Craig Braun, is a beautiful shell of a man. He has lost a son, he fears losing his daughter, and he can do little to maintain peace or order in his own home.
At first glance, he seems tormented by the lack of decorum and respect from his children, but the vast windows into his public life as a politician might also show that perhaps Mr. Wyeth’s greatest acting role has not yet wrapped. Mr. Braun hits all the right notes in the role.
“Other Desert Cities” is a heavy story, which is lightened with much needed comedic relief from Trip, played by Ian Bell, and eccentric Aunt Silda Grauman, played by Vay David. Trip, who uses comedy as a defense mechanism for coping with his family, is thrown into the position of negotiator, begging them to let bygones be bygones at least until the New Year. Aunt Silda’s brash sarcasm contrasted well with her sister’s rigid nature. Well done by both of these fine actors.
Sean Marbury’s set design, always a standard-bearer, outdid itself in “Other Desert Cities.” Here, he created an absolutely breathtaking view of the desert through the windows of the parental abode. The wall of glass windows that traps the Wyeth family is like a television set ever on display for public consumption, keeping this family playing roles instead of living the truth.
Bringing subtle plot points to life, the stage itself provides a master course in drama. For example, Brooke describes her parents as two great oak trees—pillars of the family keeping—yet the twisted, gnarled and dried out trunks that creep in beside the hearth illustrate a different reality.
The riveting story, which ends at a reading for Brooke’s memoir, will keep the audience on the edge of their seats as it unfolds. It’s clear to see why this brilliant ensemble piece, finely staged by the Hampton Theatre Company, was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
“Other Desert Cities” runs through November 10 at the Quogue Community Hall. Showtimes are Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 for adults, $23 for seniors 65 and over and $10 for students under 21. To buy, visit hamptontheatre.org.
The Hampton Theatre Company will once again be offering special dinner and theater packages in collaboration with the Southampton, Westhampton Beach, Hampton Bays and Quogue libraries, as well as Arts Alive LI. Complete information about the dinner and theater packages is available on the company website, hamptontheatre.org.