I first saw Jon Robin Baitz’ often-blistering family drama “Other Desert Cities” during its world premiere production at New York’s Lincoln Center in February 2011. Then, it seemed the first half of the play was built on pithy zingers and a sleek back story, while the second half consisted mainly of histrionic yelling amid the revealing of long-held secrets.
The play and its quintet of actors were much praised, though, in that incarnation, and eventually a slightly recast and revised production moved to Broadway, gaining even stronger reviews while earning Baitz a Pulitzer Prize nomination.
The play is the type of one-set, self-contained, actor-driven vehicle that becomes a regional theater staple. Sacramento’s B Street Theatre has just opened the West Coast premiere, edging out a production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts in Silicon Valley, which opens next week before moving to San Diego’s Old Globe.
Director David Pierini’s intimate new B Street production catches all the play’s early comedy while revealing more nuance and poignancy than previously in the somber second half. Baitz has carved a classic three-act, realistic American drama into two halves strictly for presentation. Set in the upscale Wyeth home in Palm Springs on Christmas Eve 2004, the story has a nostalgic quality, perhaps not only because is the action in the past, but most of the characters spend their time looking back even further. Lyman (the superb David Silberman) and Polly Wyeth (an appropriately icy Joan Grant) are the formal types of parents whose own children call them by their first names.
“You make people very nervous,” son Trip (a sure Mike DiSalvo) tells his mother.
“I don’t like weakness,” Polly says.
They were friends of Ron and Nancy Reagan, sharing conservative politics as well as exclusive country clubs and chummy dinner parties. Lyman was even a former successful movie and television actor himself who had a late-career turn as an ambassador under the first President Bush. Polly wrote a series of “B” children’s movies with her sister Silda (the vibrant Stephanie McVay), but now she and Lyman hide away in Palm Springs for reasons that will eventually come tumbling out.
The family is gathering for Christmas for the first time in many years as writer daughter Brooke (Dana Brooke) has come from the East Coast bearing an auspicious gift – her new manuscript. A former wunderkind novelist (she wrote one book), Brooke has been blocked and unstable with a stint in a mental health clinic. Her new book, already sold to a publisher, is a memoir centered on the life and death of older brother Henry, who committed suicide some 20 years ago.
Brooke has brought the unpublished manuscript for her parents to read in hopes they’ll give their blessings to the work that naturally contains much about them.
Given what she knows about her parents, it seems unlikely Brooke should have expected very much as she and Polly lock into a death match of antagonism before the manuscript is even handed over. The two characters seem most related by their flinty me-and-my-needs-first absolutism. Even after providing certain justifications, each comes off as selfish, less than charitable and mostly unappealing. Brother Trip has no interest in arbitrating for a family by which he’s always felt forgotten, though he speaks the most hard truths of anyone.
Silberman’s gracious, stately Lyman initially just wants everyone to get along but becomes a rock as the dark holes in his family’s shadowy past come to light.
Director Pierini carefully navigates his solid ensemble through Baitz’s fine line of comedy and pathos in this satisfying production.
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.