Elizabeth Marvel and Stockard Channing
in Other Desert Cities
(© Joan Marcus)
Elizabeth Marvel and Stockard Channing
in Other Desert Cities
(© Joan Marcus)
There could not be a better cast than the one assembled for Jon Robin Baitz's world premiere play, Other Desert Cities, at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater. Stockard Channing, Elizabeth Marvel, Stacy Keach, Linda Lavin, and Thomas Sadoski all deliver masterful performances in director Joe Mantello's finely modulated production.

The work is set in 2004, during the Christmas holidays in the Wyeth family home in Palm Springs, California. Brooke Wyeth (Marvel) has returned home after a six-year absence, bringing with her the manuscript of her soon-to-be published book, which reveals details of a family scandal from decades past that parents Polly (Channing) and Lyman (Keach) do not want revisited. Stuck in the middle of the controversy is Brooke's younger brother, Trip (Sadoski), and Polly's sister, Silda Grauman (Lavin), a writer who is currently living with the couple.

Baitz has a flair for dialogue, and the first half of the play is filled with various witticisms and snappy comebacks that the actors -- particularly Channing -- put across with ease. However, as tensions mount and the play grows darker, the cast makes a seamless transition in tone.

Much of the conflict within the play results from the opposing political perspectives of Polly and Lyman, who are conservative Republicans who were once part of Ronald Reagan's inner circle, and the more liberal-leaning Brooke and Silda. Baitz seems to stack the deck in favor of the latter, as he never really provides convincing arguments for the political convictions of the former. However, he does complicate Polly and Lyman's own personal actions as it pertains to the scandal at the heart of Brooke's book.

Marvel and Channing do the majority of the heavy lifting within the piece, as it's the mother-daughter relationship that is the most volatile. Keach gives grace and dignity to his role of a former actor turned politician, Lavin is superb as Silda, an alcoholic taking her first steps to recovery, and Sadoski fills out what at first seems like a slender role.

In lesser hands, this play could easily come across as overly melodramatic. However, the deeply felt performances -- particularly Marvel in a late-in-the-play speech following a game-changing revelation and Keach in an anguished cry when Lyman feels he's about to lose what matters to him most -- give the production the emotional heft it needs.

The physical production is equal to the talents of its cast. John Lee Beatty's gorgeous set design is an elegant interior that weds rustic decor, exemplified by a stone wall and fireplace, with the wealthy opulence befitting the status of the Wyeth family. Kenneth Posner's lighting nicely shifts to show the differing times of day and night of the play's action, while David Zinn's costumes visually signify the essence of each character.

An epilogue set in 2010 seems to be the only serious misstep in the piece, as the play's final moments unnecessarily provide an update to how the characters' relationships with one another changed following that fateful December night. However, even that is acceptable, particularly as it allows a few more moments with this truly wondrous cast.

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