We are such a fractious society these days, surrounded by partisans, spinners and knee-jerks, that I find it's often hard for me to look at any politically charged statement or artwork without setting off my own inner spin doctor. Of course, it's not intrinsically wrong to hold political views, but they shouldn't interfere with accurately perceiving what other people are saying. Yet as the current production of Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities now at Actor's Theatre clearly demonstrated, that's exactly what happened when I saw the Broadway production in February 2012.
What saved me from egging my own face back then was the time-honored tradition of not divulging rad plot twists in a review, especially when they occur deep in Act 2. But my reticence also prevented my knowing precisely what lay ahead as I sat down to my second viewing last week. As a result, I experienced an unnecessary rollercoaster ride in respect to my esteem for Baitz.
Over and over, it seemed like the playwright was sending out deceptive signals from Lyman and Polly Wyeth that conflicted with the truth we would ultimately learn about them. But this time, when they detonated their stunning Act 2 surprise, I understood them more accurately — and my admiration for Baitz's drama reached new heights, as I perceived his objectivity and even-handedness.
My misperceptions about Lyman and Polly are relevant because they parallel those of their daughter, Brooke, who comes home for Christmas after a six-year absence armed with the antithesis of a peace offering. She has written — and sold — a memoir that paints an unflattering picture of the roles her staunchly Republican parents played in radicalizing her older brother, Henry, during America's misadventure in Vietnam. In Brooke's view, her parents not only drove Henry into the arms of militant radicals, their lack of support for him when he got into trouble led to his suicide.
Even though an excerpt is already earmarked for an upcoming issue of The New Yorker, Brooke seeks her parents' approval to proceed with publication. Lyman, a former movie star and U.S. Ambassador — appointed by his Hollywood stablemate Ronald Reagan — is still prominent in the state party even though he has retired to Palm Springs. Still chums with Nancy, Polly is such an upstanding Californian that few remember she was a Texas Jew when she broke into showbiz as a comedy writer.
One of those who remember vividly is Polly's sister, Silda, who co-wrote all the fizzy comedy that perched Polly in the upper crust. As we quickly find out when Silda drifts in from one of the guestrooms, she can still sling a snappy one-liner targeting her sister's pretensions. She has become like Brooke's soulmate, sharing her niece's liberal politics and serving as her West Coast spy, feeding Brooke inside info as she labored over her memoir three time zones away.
Both of these co-conspirators have lived down to Polly's labeling of liberals as weak whiners. Silda is a recovering alcoholic, bunking with her sister because she has nowhere else she can turn, and Brooke's memoir has served as part of her therapy after a harrowing breakdown in the wake of her brother's demise. Rounding out the family — without really tipping its political leaning in either direction — is Brooke's younger brother Trip, who produces a hit reality TV show that hasn't earned respect from anyone else in the family. Amid this tangle of antagonisms and long-held resentments, Brooke learns she has more reasons than she knew to appreciate her mom and dad — and more reasons to curse them.
Dennis Delamar has chosen a cast that, like the script, moved nearer and nearer to perfection for me as the evening progressed. In her Charlotte debut, Josephine seemed a little old at first to be tackling Brooke's youthful rebelliousness, but her childishness gradually emerges and her disintegration in the denouement is more spectacular than the Broadway edition.
Seeing Brooke's faults more clearly under Delamar's meticulous direction also helps us to take a more balanced view of Lyman and Polly. All the romantic leads Jerry Colbert has done in past decades here in the Queen City gives him instant credibility as Lyman once you swallow his reverence for Reagan and Bush. Another local theater vet, Katherine Goforth has a frostiness as Polly that's delightful to satirize. She can ably deliver a zinger or two of her own, and she works well with Colbert, making the Act 2 revelations more of a joint effort than they were in the Lincoln Center production.
Struggling to stay on the wagon, Polly Adkins doesn't miss any of Silda's acerbic humor. Nor does she stint on the resentful mean-spiritedness that lurks underneath. But Ryan Stamey, the wild man of Actor's Theatre, as the most grounded Wyeth? That might take some adjustment if you vividly remember Stamey's exploits in The Great American Trailer Park Musical. I was able to climb aboard well before Trip's devastating monologue cued up the mighty Act 2 climax.
Lighting and set design go uncredited in the playbill, along with any notice that most of the action occurs in 2004 after Bush 43's re-election. On a fraction of the budget, the Palm Springs set evokes the modernity, luxury and vapidity I saw in New York. The whole effort stands up just as well.
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