February 19, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem


Buzz has it that Jon Robin Baitz’s play OTHER DESERT CITIES is one of the frontrunners for this year’s Best Play Tony Award, and it’s easy to see why. (Let’s leave aside the fact that so few new plays open on Broadway these days, whatever manages to stay open for more than a couple of weeks becomes an instant contender.)
Cities is a classically “well-made play.” All the action, aside from a brief epilogue, takes place over a single day, and in a confined setting: the living room of a prosperous Palm Springs house over a very intense Christmas Eve. The characters are all family members: the conservative Republican (and Jewish) power couple Polly and Lyman Wyeth (Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach), their troubled children Brooke and Trip (Rachel Griffiths and Justin Kirk), and Polly’s sister Silda (Judith Light).

There is a disturbing family saga to be gradually unfolded, complete with alcoholism, the scarring left by emotionally withholding parenting, political strife, and at least one nervous breakdown. Most of it turns out to be based around the family member who isn’t there, the Wyeth’s third child, a son who back in the 1970s, we are told, was implicated in an antiwar bombing that went wrong and then committed suicide. When writer Brooke reveals that she’s written a book about her dead brother, one that puts the blame for his tragedy squarely on his very respectable parents, all of the family’s accumulated tensions escalate to the kind of Act 2 narrative revelation that neatly forces us to reexamine what we had previously known about the characters. (That revelation is naturally presented by way of a tour de force virtual monologue by the one character who had previously done the least of the talking.)
Although Cities’ political sympathies are liberal, its style is squarely conservative; it unveils its surprises with the predetermined pacing of the act breaks in a TV drama’s season finale. It’s a far less provocative or structurally stylized piece of work than Venus In Fur, recently transferred from off-Broadway, or Clybourne Park, currently in its pre-Broadway run in Los Angeles. Many will find it more satisfying than either of those, with its emphasis on family values (however bitterly argued-about they may be) and even its ambiguities suffused with emotion.
The show has certainly been cast and assembled with high quality. Joe Mantello’s direction smoothly handles every shift along Baitz’s long day’s journey, from the caustic humor of the first act to the high drama of the second. There’s a lovely set by John Lee Beatty. The cast is beautifully melded into an ensemble, and each gets both sharp laughs and at least one heavy-duty monologue.
If all this sounds vaguely unexcited, it’s because Other Desert Cities sometimes has the feel of one of those movies Harvey Weinstein trots out for Oscar consideration late every year. It’s not so much a reflection on the work’s quality, as the feeling that a very conventional “seriousness” has been valued over anything genuinely daring, disturbing or innovative. The play is very fine without ever remotely being great; it’s its own “For Your Consideration” marketing campaign.
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About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."