Dysfunctional Family Tells All: A Review of Broadway's "Other Desert Cities"

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Welcome home for the holidays.  Don’t worry; with a mimosa by nine and a bloody mary before eleven, you won’t even feel the suffocation.  It’s no wonder that on Christmas, Aunt Silda of the Wyeth house snaps at her sister, “I’m going to have to learn how to deal with you now that I’m sober.”

It’s been a quick journey to Broadway for this family, since the play debuted off-Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater only last month.  Written by Jon Robin Baitz, creator of Brothers and Sisters, and directed by Wicked director Joe Mantello, Other Desert Cities has been birthed by some of the freshest aesthetic perspectives on modern-day relationships.

In Other Desert Cities, Brooke Wyeth has punished herself since the day her oldest brother participated in a bombing and committed suicide. When she comes home for Christmas, she must tell her parents that she has expressed her deceased brother’s story in writing.  Publishing her memoir, she believes, is the redemption she needs from the pain her brother caused her.   If telling the truth about her brother's involvement in the bombing will liberate Brooke from turmoil, it seems her parents should accept her memoir.  This act poses a question: are the disgraces of our fathers so unthinkable that we should choose to hide them rather than define them?

Playing Brooke Wyeth, Rachel Griffiths physically reacts to the weird energy of the dry desert living room and her paranoid family by crouching over and assuming a fetal position.  Oddly, she is not protecting herself from her confrontational parents.  She seems indifferent to her surroundings.  She is like a sponge--easily wrung of her feelings about what she experiences, yet still able to absorb what happens around her.

Upon meeting, Polly, played by Stockard Channing, she seems like a stock character with the rhythm of her Rizzo on refrain.  She is brick wall that bounces jokes back on all she meets, and the audience notices stark contrast with between her and her daughter.  Channing is all grout and bricks to protect herself from the family.  This choice allows the audience to notice Polly's deterioration.  Channing soon looks more like a canvas painted as a brick wall.  She hides her weakness; she puts on a solid facade.  Her family members repeatedly emphasize how Polly knows who she is.  How can they not?  As Polly constantly tries to repaint her wall, she personifies her disguised identity.

As the audience walks the tightrope that is the Wyeth lineage, they need a focal point to keep balance, namely Justin Kirk playing Trip. In a speech toward the end, Trip announces to the room that love in the family should supersede arguments over a book, and the audience receives his notion with unprecedented applause.  As an actor, he is revved up with emotion without driving it home in other people, making the family want to listen to him.  He possesses the power to change everyone’s goals in the thicket of an opinion occupation.  He sees how tightly wound the other family members are, and yet, by embracing them, he is able to unwed their underwear from the back of their head.

As the Wyeths’ history unveils itself, all family members are found guilty.  As soon as one seems trustworthy, another tells a secret that condemns them. The condemnation, though, sets them free from hiding.  The question of our fathers’ disgraces is invalid because we cannot hide them.  The truth of transgressions will inevitably be told.  Waiting for the truth to come out is trapping, like driving on a highway with no exit.

Baitz informs his audience of his intentions in writing “Cities” when Brooke recalls the exit on the highway for Palm Springs, where her parents live.  She says, “I am always so tempted just to keep on driving” to “other desert cities.”  If Baitz were concerned with what was beyond Palm Springs, his characters would not exit the highway.  Instead his characters go home.  After their Christmas, they do not come out resolved or redeemed, but they come out alive.  This solitary solution informs the problem: they did not have life, or oxygen, from the start. They could not be suffocated or condemned by the family, because they were dead and guilty when they came.

CultureKatie Hay