Review: 'Other Desert Cities' at Hudson Stage Company

John P. McCarthy

Attention to detail is a hallmark of any successful piece of theater and playwright Jon Robin Baitz gets all the little things right in ‘Other Desert Cities’, which won the Outer Critics Circle Award after premiering at Lincoln Center in 2010.   

Top photo: left COLLEEN ZENK as Polly, PEGGY J SCOTT as Silda / photo credit: SUE COFLIN/MAX PHOTOS

Hudson Stage Company’s production, which opened this past weekend, displays equal care for the details. From the music choices—tracks from the American songbook crooned by Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Johnny Mathis and Rosemary Clooney—to the costumes, to David Arsenault’s perfectly observed set, HSC nails it.

Judging by its décor, the Palm Springs abode of Polly and Lyman Wyeth is stuck in the 1960s and ‘70s; while, as pals of Ronnie and Nancy Reagan, the couple’s politics is stuck in the 1980s. (Some might argue the 1950s.) The action takes place in 2004 and the Wyeth’s artwork, lighting fixtures, tile flooring, and earth-toned furnishings cry out for a makeover overseen by an expensive decorator. The well-heeled Wyeth’s can afford it but, as we learn, something prevents them from moving forward on this and every other front. 

Floor-to-ceiling picture windows offer a dramatic view of the San Jacinto Mountains looming over the Coachella Valley. (Kudos to the design team for evoking the deep purple colors of the desert sky at dusk). Only as the play progresses do we notice a cinder block wall between this glass partition and the vista beyond—an apt symbol of the Wyeth’s isolation and how they’ve closed themselves off from the world. 

It’s Christmastime and their two adult children are visiting. Trip, a producer of trashy reality TV has zipped two hours east from L.A.; their daughter Brooke, a novelist living in Sag Harbor, has flown in for the first time in six years. Rounding out the cast of characters is Silda, Polly’s dipsomaniac sister, who has taken up residence while she tries to quit drinking once and for all. 

Way back when, Lyman was a Hollywood contract player specializing in “gunslingers and gumshoes”. Then he transitioned from acting to politics, serving as an ambassador during the Reagan administration and as chair of the Republican Party. Polly, who occasionally appeared on screen while co-writing (with Silda) a fairly popular movie series featuring a young heroine named Hillary, is not a vapid social X-ray. 

left BRENDA WITHERS as Brooke, center DAVEY RAPHAELY as Trip, front right COLLEEN ZENK as Polly / photo credit: SUE COFLIN/MAX PHOTOS

Steely and substantial, she has no time for liberals or weakness of any kind. She’s especially tough on Brooke, who as recently emerged from a long bout of depression. Handsome, amiable Lyman shows more empathy where Brooke is concerned and is generally less rigid and judgmental than his wife. 

As a couple, they’re obsessed with tradition, order, and discretion. And it goes beyond their conservative political outlook. A big reason for retreating into God’s west coast waiting room is that their eldest child, Henry, committed suicide after joining a cult and participating in a terrorist bombing. 

The imminent publication of Brooke’s second book, a memoir about Henry’s death, drives the action. In addition to finding her parent’s politics reactionary, Brooke is appalled by their unwillingness to deal with this painful family tragedy. Even before reading her book, Polly and Lyman dread the scandal it will ignite and the damage it will do to their reputations. 

Baitz, who created the TV series “Brothers & Sisters”, is extremely comfortable in this geographic and thematic milieu. A native Angelino, he drops the correct names and references—to showbiz eateries like Chasen’s and the Brown Derby, to establishment enclaves such as the Los Angeles Country Club and Bohemian Grove, and to Nancy Reagan’s besties Betsy Bloomindale and Wallis Annenberg. Demonstrating his pop culture bona fides, he even mentions Totie Fields, the zaftig comedienne of the 1960s and ‘70s.  

Baitz has a flare for penning quips and showing how family members can push one another’s buttons with varying degrees of harshness. Among my favorite lines: Trip affectionately refers to his parents as “those WASP-ified GOP zombies in the other room.” 

If ‘Other Desert Cities” initially comes off as a tad glib and melodramatic, simply an exercise in bashing a generation’s out-of-touch conservatism, things prove more complicated than they appear courtesy of a twist. 

Dan Foster, a cofounder of HSC, directs with an appropriately light touch but doesn’t always keep the banter moving at a sufficiently rapid pace. As for the performances, Colleen Zenk, a longtime fixture on the soap opera “As the World Turns” is tailor-made for Polly. Oozing condescension and catty disdain, she perfectly embodies the suntanned entitlement and well-coiffed crustiness of a petrifying desert dame.  

As Brooke, Brenda Withers gives as good as she gets from Ms. Zenk, while poignantly communicating her character’s slightly indulgent anguish. Malachy Cleary’s Lyman is sympathetic almost to the point of being a milquetoast. Peggy Scott can be relied on for laughs as Silda; and Davy Raphaely ably handles the hardest to pin-down character, Trip, who sees things from all sides and tries to be the voice of reason and neutrality. 

left COLLEEN ZENK as Polly, center MALACHY CLEARY as Lyman, right BRENDA WITHERS as Brooke / photo credit: SUE COFLIN/MAX PHOTOS

The key to the piece is the brilliant way Baitz combines an incisive portrait of a certain political animal, one that flourished at specific time in modern American history, with universal and perennial family dysfunction. He also draws insightful links between the Reagan Revolution and Tinseltown artifice—the make-believe churned out by the Hollywood dream-factory. 

Baitz understands that this brand of conservatism was more about stagecraft and effectively packaging messages than ideology. Incidentally, Baitz’s prescience regarding the connections between showbiz and this right-of-center, but above all pragmatic, approach to politics is born out by the rise of Donald Trump.  

‘Other Desert Cities” treats forms of escapism, families and trust, the role and ethical obligations of the artist (a theme Baitz explored in greater depth in his earlier play ‘Ten Unknowns’), and the consequences of both lying and telling the truth. Ultimately, honesty does set these characters free, which can be interpreted as the most fanciful and artificially optimistic outcome of all. 

At one point, Silda ridicules her sister and brother-in-law’s obsession with appearances and their desire to preserve their good name. “Nobody is watching. Nobody remembers,” she insists. Whether or not that accurately describes the Wyeth’s situation, anyone fortunate enough to catch Hudson Stage Company’s revival of ‘Other Desert Cities” will be hard-pressed to look away… and won’t easily forget what they see. 

‘Other Desert Cities’ runs at Hudson Stage Company at the Whippoorwill Hall Theatre, North Castle Library in Armonk through October 31, 2015.