There is nothing dry about “Other Desert Cities,” the Pulitzer Prize nominated New York hit now playing at TheatreWorks in Mountain View. Written by Jon Robin Baitz (TV’s “Brothers and Sisters”) and deftly directed by Richard Seer, it is a fast, funny and ultimately shocking view of family ties that bind and bind and bind, seen through a political lens. Co-produced with the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, it is less thirst provoking and more like a very cool gin-and-tonic on a hot summer day.
It’s Christmas Eve at the plush Wyeth house in Palm Springs but all is not calm and bright. The kids are home: daughter Brooke (Kate Turnbull), living out east after a stint in a mental hospital, and Trip (Rod Brogen), an LA reality show producer. Also in residence is indigent Aunt Silda (Bay Area favorite Julia Brothers) who is still drying out after rehab. Mom, the acerbic, abrasive Polly (Kandis Chappell in a show-anchoring performance) and Lyman, the father, a former film actor, turned politico (a very simpatico James Sutorius), have their hands full even before Brooke hits them with the manuscript of her latest book, a tell-all memoir about the family’s deepest, darkest secret.
It’s a house full of secrets, as well as contradictions. The tree twinkles brightly but it turns out these folks are Jewish. Polly professes her undying love for her children while cutting them down at every turn. The parents are staunch Republicans – the kids and Aunt Silda somewhat more on the left of the curve. Alexander Dodge’s elegant living room set reeks of money but Brooke is living hand-to-mouth on writing for the occasional magazine. And, it turns out, a third sibling, cast out by the Wyeth parents for drugging and general bad behavior, committed an act of terrorism and then committed suicide, forcing the parents (a former ambassador and socialite) to retreat to this posh desert hideout. Shunned by their old friends, Polly and Lyman eke out their days at the country club and Republican fund-raisers, boring their two remaining children to tears.
Or laughter. While all this doesn’t sound very funny, Baitz’s witty dialogue makes it so. In fact, the repartee between the parents and children – with the occasional zinger from Aunt Silda – is so glib it occasionally seems facile. But that’s only in Act One. After intermission, things turn deadly serious as the family’s true secrets come out – not in the book but in real life. It’s powerful and riveting, as are the performances in this impeccably-cast show. If the first act belongs to Chappell, the second goes to Turnbull and Sutorius but exemplary work is done by the entire ensemble throughout. “Other Desert Cities” deserves the kudos it received on the East Coast (in addition to the Pulitzer nomination it was in the running for the Tony). TheatreWorks and the Old Globe deserve a round of applause for bring it West.