Other Desert Cities: The Rep delivers a delicious telling of a family in turmoil

Feb 20, 2014 at 4:00 am
Anderson Matthews and Dee Hoty bring it home in Other Desert Cities.
Anderson Matthews and Dee Hoty bring it home in Other Desert Cities. Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

When it comes to dysfunction, St. Louis' Busch clan has nothing on the Wyeths, the incisive, caustic and sometimes-tender family of privilege that took up residence last Friday at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Oh, these Wyeths! They've gathered here in Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities, a glittering family drama where deep political disputes serve as a proxy for the even deeper clash of personal narratives that fuel this "thermonuclear family war."

As a family drama, Desert Cities mines a familiar vein of American theater, unearthing intergenerational conflict and dark family secrets to explosive effect. What's more, with its sumptuous set and ensemble cast, this play is in many ways a throwback to an earlier age — smartly written, highly staged, topical and populated with characters whose clever badinage we can only aspire to in real life. But Baitz's lavish script — near Wildean in its rush of elegantly turned witticisms — is more than that. Each character is so fully realized that our emotional allegiances shift to whichever member of this smart tribe happens to hold the floor.

Or at least that's the idea.

It's Christmas Eve 2004. The nation's bloody adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan are in full swing, and Brooke Wyeth (Celeste Ciulla), a depressive and vaguely suicidal writer, has returned to the family compound for a bit of Yuletide cheer. She has come to visit her parents, Lyman and Polly (Anderson Matthews and Dee Hoty), old guard GOP operatives who in their retirement have retreated to the desert environs of Palm Springs. Lyman had worked as a B-list actor before rising through the state's political ranks, eventually serving as an ambassador under Ronald Reagan. Polly, born Jewish, had been a writer at MGM until Hollywood "became about drugs and lefties whining."

But that's all ancient history now. These days Lyman and Polly lead a quiet life, measuring their hours playing tennis and swimming laps at their sleek desert fortress of sunken rooms and modern Danish furnishings. (Michael Ganio designed the very impressive set.) Or rather they would, if it wasn't for Silda (Glynis Bell), Polly's sharp-tongued, liberal sister who has taken-up an uneasy residence with the couple following a stint at rehab. Rounding out the family is the Wyeth's youngest son, Trip (Alex Hanna), who produces a courtroom reality show, watches a little too much porn and quips while rolling a joint that "[n]obody who takes pleasure as seriously as I do could possibly be happy."

The Wyeths might have muddled along this way for years, but this Christmas is different. After a bout of clinical depression and writer's block, Brooke has returned home with a gift six years in the making: a tell-all memoir that explores the tumultuous life and death of her older brother, Henry, who clashed violently with her parents and left only a suicide note after being implicated in a Weather Underground-style bombing. Better yet? The book is already under contract, and The New Yorker is planning to run an excerpt of it in February.

The biting ripostes of the first act give way to downright recriminations in the second, as Lyman exclaims, "She presents us as ghouls who drove him to become some sort of murderer!" to which his wife replies, "The things she knows nothing about could fill the Library of Congress."

Director Steven Woolf ensures the dialogue never goes flat, and as the emotional stakes rise, so do our allegiances with each of the characters — at least for the most part.

The actors have such a marvelous script to work with here, and Hoty and Matthews, though pilloried by their family as heartless one-percenters, do it justice while delivering strong, heartfelt performances. Matthews is deeply sympathetic as a well-intentioned father who wants only the best for his children, and Hoty is a scintillating joy to watch as a fierce family protector who uses her sardonic wit to safeguard the Wyeths' good name. The play's two plum roles go to Hanna and Bell, who deliver some of Desert Cities' best lines with impeccable timing.

Unfortunately, the production's one weak spot is also a doozy: Ciulla, who is frankly miscast as Brooke, often throws the play's shifting emotional balance out of whack. She frequently comes across as aggressively happy and betrays little of the emotional fragility one would associate with (and the script calls for in) a recently suicidal writer — particularly one whose work threatens to undo her wounded family's troubled peace.

The performance is so distracting that it robs the play of some of its considerable emotional force. But Other Desert Cities, a Broadway hit that was a finalist for both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award, has virtues enough to overcome this shortcoming. And these Wyeths — sharp, funny and ferocious — are grand enough, as Polly would have it, not to be "terrorized by their weakest member."