There is a moment early in Jon Robin Baitz' 2004 play, Other Desert Cities, in which the narrative of the politically charged family drama seems almost too predictable, even borderline cliche: Two adult liberal children returning home to spend Christmas with status-conscious Republican parents, all equally loyal to their archetypes and happy to wield a barbed wit.
But just as soon as Baitz lets us think we know who these characters are, a family secret is revealed, showing that there is much so more to this story.
Other Desert Cities, presented through May 20 by A Public Fit theater company, upsets predictability with a twist that leaves audiences having much more to chew on than the expected family dynamics and clever passive-aggressive blows.
It's Christmas Eve in Palm Springs, at the home of Polly and Lyman Wyeth. Daughter Brooke, a depressed magazine writer living in New York City, reveals that the novel she's just written isn't really a novel, but a memoir about the family and the suicide of her brother Henry, who killed himself after a radical group he was involved with bombed a recruitment center in the ’70s, killing a man. It would bring to public attention the most painful time of the family's life.
Polly, the warm yet needling mother, is the first to protest, wanting to "verify" the manuscript before it's published, saying to her daughter, "You, of course, may write anything you like, but the ice gets thin, the ice gets thin when it involves WE the living. We, the living, would like to go out gracefully.''
Lyman, a former Hollywood movie star, and Polly, who wrote a series of movies with her sister, are wealthy and actively involved in the upper echelon of the GOP, even friends of Nancy and Ronald Reagan — but the comfort within their social circles took a hit with their son's involvement in the bombing. Youngest son Trip is an easygoing TV producer in LA, and Brooke has spent years in a suicidal depression over the loss of her brother, whom she considered her best friend, and who left her no suicide note. Polly's sister Silda, recently out of rehab after five years of sobriety, is living with Lyman and Polly.
Discussions ensue about putting art before life and the consequences that memoirs can have on others. But the bigger issue in this neatly packaged play is that there is more to the story: What happens when the story is wrong? Taking place three years after 9/11, during a time of changing politics and heightened anxiety over global extremism, the family playfully throws verbal jabs, often too honest for comfort, when the storyline takes a twist, illustrating that the story that we live with as truth can sometimes be missing essential, unknowable facts.
A play delving into family drama and during a tumultuous political climate seemed timely, says
Ann-Marie Pereth, artistic director of A Public Fit, who read the play (named for a sign near Palm Springs) two years ago when director Mark Gorman brought it to her, interested in directing it. At the time, she said, President Obama was leaving office and the race between Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump was intensifying an already polarizing political climate. Not only does Other Desert Cities address the current reality of families divided over political differences, it delves into suicide and how a family that loves each other deals with tragedy, secrets, and truth.
"In this play," she says, “they put families first and politics second."
Other Desert Cities, through May 20, The Usual Place,100 S. Maryland Parkway, $25-$30, apublicfit.org