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It’s Christmas Eve, 2004, and the Wyeth clan has gathered together to celebrate the holiday in Palm Springs, where WASPy parents Polly (Stockard Channing) and Lyman (Stacy Keach) raised their family, playing tennis and hanging out at the country club. Joining them is daughter Brooke (Rachel Griffiths), son Trip (Thomas Sadoski), and Polly’s sister, Silda Grauman (Judith Light). What transpires over the course of the next two hours is a classic tale of family dysfunction, filled with secrets and lies, masterfully told by playwright Jon Robin Baitz and director Joe Mantello. Other Desert Cities unfolds on John Lee Beatty’s wonderful set, a modern living room complete with working fireplace, tall windows that look out at the desert wasteland, and a long stone wall that seems to trap the family inside, combining California warmth with an icy coldness. After six years of writer’s block and months hospitalized for depression, Brooke has emerged with the follow-up to her successful debut novel, but it’s not fiction. This time she has written a tell-all memoir about the one thing the family never talks about and which brought them great public shame and embarrassment — eldest son Henry, a deeply troubled young man who joined an anarchist cult and participated in a terrorist attack that killed an innocent man, leading him to take his own life.
Former Hollywood players Polly and Lyman are true believers who have counted the Bushes and Reagans as close personal friends; in fact, Polly proudly declares that Nancy is her role model. While the parents are in favor of the Iraq war, Brooke and Silda, a recovering alcoholic, are vigilant lefties; Trip, a reality-TV producer, does his best to remain in the center, desperately trying to keep all conversations away from politics. But he has a lot more trouble attempting to be the voice of reason as long-held secrets emerge that threaten to tear the family apart. Other Desert Cities is everything a play should be: Sharp, incisive dialogue, nearly flawless acting, and seamless, flowing direction, with a laugh-out-loud first act and a much darker, far more serious second act. A Lincoln Center Theater production that originally ran at the Mitzi E. Newhouse this past January and February (and that also starred Channing, Keach, and Sandoski, with Linda Lavin as Silda and Elizabeth Marvel as Brooke), Other Desert Cities is an exceptional piece of work, an intelligent, thought-provoking drama that melds the political and the personal in thrilling ways.