Rachel Griffiths — best known for her television roles on Six Feet Under and Brothers and Sisters — makes an auspicious Broadway debut in Jon Robin Baitz’s compelling drama, Other Desert Cities, at the Booth Theatre under the sure-handed direction of Joe Mantello.
Her work is ably supported by her fellow cast members, who include Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach, and Thomas Sadoski — all repeating their roles from last season’s Off-Broadway premiere of the play — as well as Judith Light, who is the other new addition to the Broadway production. Together, the five performers comprise what is no doubt the finest ensemble cast currently treading the boards in New York.
Other Desert Cities is set primarily in 2004, during the Christmas holidays in the Wyeth family home in Palm Springs, California. Brooke (Griffiths) 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 decades-old family scandal that parents Polly (Channing) and Lyman (Keach) do not want revisited. Stuck in the middle of the controversy are Brooke’s younger brother, Trip (Sadoski), and Polly’s recovering alcoholic sister, Silda Grauman (Light).
Much of the conflict within the play results from the opposing political perspectives of Polly and Lyman, who are conservative Republicans, and the more liberal-leaning Brooke and Silda. Secrets are eventually disclosed that complicate the ways that the various family members navigate their personal and political convictions.
Griffiths’ approach to the role bears a surface similarity to that of Elizabeth Marvel, who originated the part Off-Broadway. The main difference is that Marvel seemed to emphasize Brooke’s frazzled state from early on, while Griffiths allows for a slower build. Her performance culminates in a truly powerful emotional climax towards the end of the second act that is likely to reduce audience members to tears.
Channing not only puts Baitz’s witticisms and snappy dialogue across with ease; she plays Polly with a chilling self-possession that casually dominates those around her. Furthermore, she and Griffiths share a powerful onstage connection that helps to make palpable the love-hate relationship between mother and daughter.
Keach gives grace and dignity to his role of a former actor turned politician. He also puts across his character’s fear and frustration that manifests in an anguished cry when Lyman feels he’s about to lose what matters to him most.
Sadoski reveals hidden depths to Trip, particularly in an impassioned speech wherein he tries to play peacemaker for his fast-fracturing family.
Light, who replaced Linda Lavin for this Broadway mounting, is pitch-perfect as Silda. The actress shows the character’s strength and sarcasm, as well as her struggles with weakness and self-doubt, which become increasingly apparent once Polly calls her out on an inconvenient truth that she’s kept from Brooke.
John Lee Beatty’s scenic design, newly tailored to a traditional Broadway proscenium from a thrust stage, features an elegant interior that weds rustic decor with an opulence befitting the status of the Wyeth family. Included as part of the set are windows revealing palm trees and an expanse of sky, as well as a glass wall stage left that leads outdoors. Both of these allow Kenneth Posner to play with various lighting effects to signify the differing times of day and night of the play’s action. Particularly noteworthy is the reflection of the outdoor pool that can be seen as the evening grows darker.
An epilogue set in 2010 remains the play’s weakest section, as it seems unnecessary to reveal the various fates of the characters, and the ways their relationships with one another changed following that fateful December night. However, it admittedly does provide a sense of closure, and allows the play to end on a hopeful note.