Playing through May 26 at Arena Stage, Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities” is a production for those who enjoy wit and political maneuvering, and for those who understand just how critical political identity is.
She demolishes her parents in the memoir, without ever trying to speak to them and draw them out. This method might be OK, Trip tells her, but it is not without a pretty significant cost.
“You have to accept the consequences of ‘art over life’, which in this case is likely to be losing the trust of the people you love, for the sake of these opinions, these bewildering portraits of these people who seem totally unrecognizable to me,” the reality TV producer, of all people, says to her.
In this Arena production, the stand-out is Carey’s fearless Polly. She is at turns funny, hard, broken, scared and wildly in love with her family. Polly wants nothing more than to repair each damaged member, mainly by simply demanding they be OK.
“Yes, I don’t like weakness. I’ve tried to push her, to be hard on her so that she wouldn’t sink,” Polly says of her daughter. “I don’t know if I’ve succeeded. You can die from too much sensitivity in this world.”
The dialogue is well-served from Baitz, one of the creators of the TV hit “Brothers and Sisters,” a show that had no shortage of family political drama.
Baitz has a strong background in television’s most verbal era. He was also the writer of “The West Wing” episode “The Long Goodbye,” where Allison Janney’s character, C.J. Cregg, travels to her Ohio hometown to face the reality of her father’s Alzheimer’s disease. It was another story of a prodigal daughter who must go home after a lengthy absence to deal with a painful family secret.
Thematically at least, “Other Desert Cities” is similar to these other popular works by Baitz, but also more firmly grounded in post-9/11 America.
Early in the first act, for example, Trip uses the terrorist attack as part of his defense for having a job as a reality show producer.
“Funny is all we have left. Yes! They flew planes into buildings! People need funny,” he says to his father. “I can’t argue with you about this, if you fail to see the merit in what I do. That’s your loss, all of you. We can’t all be hopelessly highbrow like Brooke. Some of us have to actually make money.”
Brooke makes a snide remark about weapons of mass destruction. Polly references Colin Powell. Everyone talks about Ron and Nancy Reagan.
For theater nerds, the Wyeth family story will be reminiscent of classic Greek theater. Indeed, the sunken round of the stage mirrors the architecture of the ancient amphitheaters.
“A lot of people get through the entirety of their lives, pretending,” Lyman says to his daughter. “At a certain point, it’s not the worst thing to do.”
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” she replies. “I tried to live that way, and I just can’t. I need to actually talk about it.”
In the end, the catharsis through storytelling helps them all move on.