“Other Desert Cities.” Critics whom I admire love it. Some of the top theater people in Boston flock to be part of the production at SpeakEasy Stage Company. Paul Daigneault, SpeakEasy’s estimable artistic director, calls its playwright, Jon Robin Baitz, the Arthur Miller of his generation.
All I can say is, “Wha?” Miller Lite, maybe.
Baitz is a talented writer, no doubt. His one-liners are smart, witty, cutting – choose your adjective, it applies to Baitz. And he applies them all to this story of a family’s secrets and lies. Add in the facts that the parents are bedrock Republicans on a first-name basis with Ron and Nancy while the daughter is an East Coast lefty and that director Scott Edmiston, the actors and designers are at the top of their game and you have an entertaining enough night of theater (at the Boston Center for the Arts, through Feb. 9).
The play revolves around the daughter (Anne Gottlieb as Brooke Wyeth) writing a memoir in which she blames her parents for driving her brother to suicide after he took part in a Weather Underground-type bombing. She delivers the book to them, as well as to her brother and aunt, at their Palm Springs home on Christmas.
Baitz joins a long list of American playwrights who’ve made the family a prime concern – Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, August Wilson, and Sam Shepard, to name a few. And Miller, of course.
That’s part of the problem. Everything that Baitz does in “Other Desert Cities” has been done infinitely better before, and not just by those guys. There’s no shame in not being as good as they are, but they've given us a good idea of what a play like this should deliver beyond the one-liners – revelation, nuance, complexity, sadness, horror, and if we’re lucky, transcendence.
I didn’t find any of that in “Other Desert Cities,” just a lot of finger-wagging and tsk-tsking, along with the one-liners, the best of them between Karen MacDonald as Brooke’s conservative mother, Polly, and Nancy E. Carroll, as Polly’s alcoholic sister, Silda. It’s “A Delicate Balance” revisited, but not nearly as good.
Here are some of those one-liners. (It's not the set of the play, by the way.)
Baitz is bringing his own story to the fore – he had writers' block after getting fired from ABC’s “Brothers and Sisters,” though this play reminds me of the lack of genuineness in much of Baitz’s writing for that series. “What was it Ronnie said, ‘Trust … but verify' ”? Do you know any Republican who actually talks like that? Not that the liberals are so articulate either. Brooke’s prose, when we hear excerpts, makes Patti Davis (Ronnie’s daughter) sound like Virginia Woolf.
When the revelation comes – my lips are sealed – it feels phony, and not all that dramatic anyway. I mean, is that all you got?
The larger point Baitz is making is that we never really know our parents, no matter what we think, though Richard Greenberg made that case so much more dramatically and eloquently in “Three Days of Rain.”
Baitz also shows a family that really loves each other, through all the political differences and perceived betrayals. OK, but I don’t like them, despite liking what Edmiston does with the material and what all the actors do with their characters.
Likability might not be the key ingredient in family plays, but insight is, and in that regard “Other Desert Cities” feels pretty arid.
This program aired on January 15, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.