Change at the Dinner Table

Brooke Wyeth (Rachel Griffiths) complains that her family never talks about anything, though you’d never know it from Other Desert Cities, a play so laden with expository monologues and near-endless confessions that it leaves its audience crying out for the subtlety of Neil LaBute.  This monster of a production, which runs for over two hours (but feels more like four), hits the ground running, leaving us barely any time to get comfortable before the powder keg goes off—by the time you’ve found your seat, Ms. Griffiths is already dropping the name of the play, a clunker of a trope usually reserved for dramatic climaxes.

But before I get ahead of myself—Other Desert Cities, written in the style of the classically well-made play, concerns the Wyeth family, whose matriarch Polly (Stockard Channing) and patriarch Lyman (Stacy Keach) are old-fashioned Hollywood conservatives unable to admit that their party has been hijacked by zealots who bear little resemblance to Barry Goldwater or even, for that matter, Ronald Reagan; their daughter, Brooke, is a typical liberal brat who can’t get through breakfast without lecturing them, while their son Trip (Justin Kirk) just tries to keep the peace.  Enter Silda (Judith Light), the alcoholic aunt who is there to remind Polly that she was born a Jew and that her country club WASP lifestyle is nothing but a pathetic masquerade.  And to top it all off, son Henry, their best and brightest, wound up years ago as part of a cult and committed suicide; Rachel, ever the discontented daughter, comes home for Christmas with a tell-all memoir that blames her parents for her brother’s death.

If this sounds tedious, it’s because you’ve already seen it before.  It’s nothing but fourth-rate Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill.  With Tennessee Williams, melodramatic dialogue is a staple and seems to fit his hazy Southern aesthetic, its hamminess leaves you grinning.  With Eugene O’Neill, the peeling back of layers is a deliberate, fascinating process, one that leaves his readers and audience devastated.  But with Other Desert Cities, playwright Jon Robin Baitz has mugged the best from American theater and walked away without anything that makes it interesting.  His play is a kind of assault, an endurance test that no reasonable person could pass; the characters scream about love and betrayal and art, but everything is always turned up to eleven—both the pitch and the stakes begin way too high, leaving it no place to go.

Ms. Griffiths, at its center, is both terrible and perfectly cast; sawing the air with her arms, condemning everyone in sight with such fervor that we can see the veins sticking out of her neck, she is entirely overwrought.  But what could be more apt in this context?  Veterans like Mr. Keach and Ms. Channing struggle to spit out their criminally phony dialogue—she is forced to bludgeon the audience with, “ ‘Acting or real’?  The two are hardly mutually exclusive in this family,” while he philosophically muses, “Maybe I prefer my lines written down … That was so much easier.”  These moments are in no way untypical, as Mr. Baitz feels the need to force-feed his audience the whole way through; hardly a scene goes by without someone explaining his elephantine metaphors, and the result is a sustained attack on our intelligence.

In the end, the only sympathy we have is for these actors—trapped night after night performing this hollow drivel—and not, as we should, for their characters.

Other Desert Cities runs through June 17th at the Booth Theatre.  222 W. 45th Street  New York, NY.

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Aaron Botwick

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