‘Other Desert Cities’
Through May 26
1101 6th Street, SE
In her 1991 tell all “The Way I See It,” presidential offspring Patti Davis rather scandalously opened up about her famous family.
Included in a litany of unsavory revelations was how growing up her mother Nancy Reagan frequently struck her. The slightest provocation, Patti wrote, resulted in a slap across the face — almost daily and sometimes with a hairbrush. It was her tightly wound mother’s way of maintaining control. At the time, Reagan reps denied all assertions.
With his latest play, “Other Desert Cities” (now playing at Arena Stage), gay playwright Jon Robin Baitz takes us into that spooky world of California’s Republican elite where appearances and loyalty trump all. Meet his characters Lyman and Polly Wyeth. Part of Ronald Reagan’s inner circle, they gave up show biz (he acted and she wrote screenplays with her sister Silda) for the political arena. Lyman was made an ambassador. Years later, removed from power, they live surrounded by photos from their heady past and pass sunny days playing tennis, sneaking cigarettes, towing the Republican line and polishing the legacy of their friends and mentors, Ron and Nancy.
Baitz’s play takes place at Christmas time in 2004 at the Wyeth’s Palm Springs home. They’re joined by their two surviving children — Trip, a TV producer, and Brook, a blocked novelist living on the East coast who struggles with severe depression. Polly’s alcoholic sister Silda, a little shaky and fresh out of rehab, rounds out the party. What should be a warm reunion devolves into an unhappy holiday when Brooke drops a bombshell — she’s written a new book. It’s a memoir dealing with her older brother Henry’s involvement with a radical anti-Vietnam War group and subsequent suicide. It also explores the idea that her parents abandoned Henry when he needed them most. Whether Brooke is interested in presenting truths or settling scores emerges as the hot yuletide topic.
Not surprisingly, the elderly Republican couple despises unwashed peaceniks, but it’s those smug lefties who really get to Polly. When she learns that prior to its fall release, Brooke’s book will be excerpted in an impending issue of The New Yorker, Polly becomes doubly enraged. Revealing secrets to these readers is too much. Brooke’s transgression is unforgivable; and her parents, Polly promises, will never feel the same toward her again. Lyman simply asks that Brooke wait until he and Polly are dead before she publishes.
Absorbing, witty and zinger-filled (directed at the unfashionably dressed and neocons alike), Baitz’s script is supported by smart staging and good design. Director Kyle Donnelly maintains intimacy in Arena’s big Fichlander theater in-the-round space (but unfortunately some dialogue is garbled when actors inevitably must turn their backs to sections of the audience); and Kate Edmund’s set — the expansive living room of a mid-century, desert showplace complete with faux stone bar and sunken circular fireplace — establishes the older Wyeth’s way of life at a glance.
Baitz’s play is further bolstered by a strong four-person cast, especially Helen Carey as Polly. Last season at Arena, Carey played Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” and now she’s back as another complicated matriarch of yet another dysfunctional family. Her Polly is a scary amalgam — charming, driven, competitive and fiercely loyal. Carey superbly captures the dynamism. As Brooke, Emily Donahoe conveys sensitivity and her own brand of grit. And despite the ramrod posture and sharply delivered wisecracks, Martha Hackett imbues embittered Silda with a lot of vulnerability. She’s no match for her sister and she knows it.
Openly gay New York actor Scott Drummond is excellent as Brooke’s caring younger brother Trip, a likable athletic preppy with a porn addiction. Too young to have known his late brother or remember the drama surrounding his death, Trip is the family’s peacemaker.
Larry Bryggman’s Lyman is all bonhomie and surface affability. A former movie actor best remembered for his death scenes in cowboy and gangster pictures, Lyman doesn’t want drama off-screen. But in the end, it’s Lyman who makes the play’s boldest move.
Eventually, Patti Davis and the former First Lady buried the hatchet despite Davis’ memoir. Hopefully all is truly forgiven, but at least the mother and daughter sensibly agreed that happy family makes a better look than intergenerational feuding. And does art imitate life entirely at Arena? You have through the end of May to find out.