— Allan Gray and Gabrielle Rose. Photo credit: David Cooper
OTHER DESERT CITIES
There's a great scene at the end of Annie Hall when quintessential New Yorker Woody Allen arrives in sweltering Southern California absurdly dressed in a wool jacket, shirt buttoned to the neck, muttering that the best thing about California culture is that you can turn right on a red light. I was reminded of that scene with its fish-out-of-water, alternate-visions-of-America quality at the beginning of Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities, the opening play of the Arts Club's 50th anniversary season at the Stanley.
Soon I was counting up all the American plays, movies and TV shows Baitz seems to have plundered in putting together this entertaining, thought-provoking, over-the-top vision of the American Dream gone sour, circa 2004. Taking a page from his own TV writing (Brothers & Sisters, The West Wing), adding more than a dash of Dallas, and conjuring iconic scenarios of theatrical Americana from Edward Albee and Sam Shepard, Baitz constructs a melodramatic tale of a family divided, a microcosm of the American political divide, overlaid with questions about the writer's own ethical responsibility.
Director Rachel Ditor has her actors embrace the larger-than-life quality of the characters, chew the scenery when necessary and mostly avoid lapsing into the caricatures they threaten to become.
Anna Galvin plays Brooke Wyeth, the prodigal daughter who has gone off to New York, turned into what her abrasive mother Polly (Gabrielle Rose) calls a "whining lefty," married and divorced, fallen into a long depression, and now returned for Christmas to the family estate in Palm Springs (Amir Ofek's handsome, expansive living room set). Brooke's father Lyman (Allan Gray) and Polly are wealthy right-wing Republicans, friends of the Reagans. A photo of Nancy features prominently on their bookcase.
Lyman, like Ronnie, is a retired film actor whose looks have gotten him further than his talent. Polly and her sister Silda (Gwynyth Walsh) once wrote screenplays together for a series of frothy movies (one featured surfing nuns). Silda, a liberal Democrat and recovering alcoholic, lives with Polly and Lyman, though she and Polly loathe each other's politics and personalities. Brooke's good-natured, foulmouthed brother Tripp (Benjamin Elliott), a producer of shlocky reality TV shows, has also joined the family for Christmas Eve.
At first Brooke's homecoming generates more comedy than tension, initiated mostly by reactionary Polly's acerbic put-downs. When Brooke answers her mother's criticisms with sarcasm, the matriarch will have none of it: "Sarcasm is the purview of teenagers and homosexuals." When Polly complains to Tripp, "you can die from too much sensitivity in this world," he hits back: "Yeah, well, that's sure not gonna happen to you." With most of the best lines, Rose and Elliott turn in terrific performances.
But not even the sunny Palm Springs desert can hold back the dark clouds of anxiety that threaten this family and the America it represents. The play constantly evokes the post-9/11 fear of terrorism and the wrenching, divisive invasion of Iraq. Brooke's lengthy breakdown and Silda's alcoholism are symptomatic of the personal demons stalking the family (and probably also signify the ills of American liberalism). When it turns out that Brooke is about to publish a memoir airing the family's dirty laundry, the tenuous structure holding things together threatens to implode.
And there's more--a Dark Family Secret. As in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Shepard's Buried Child, a mysterious son lies at the centre of the plot. Brooke and Tripp had an older brother, Henry, who turned against his parents in the 1970s, becoming involved with a group of radicals who bombed a recruiting station and killed a man. Polly and Lyman then turned against their son and he killed himself. Brooke has never forgiven them. Her memoir is her way of coming to terms with her brother's death and punishing her parents for their role in it.
As this information is revealed, much of the play is taken up in the blame game. Whose fault was it that Henry became and did what he did? Why haven't Polly and Lyman ever talked frankly about what happened to their son? Were their politics to blame? Were they just bad parents? Was it because Polly was such a bitch? Or was it, as Lyman claims, "drugs and sex and nihilism" that drove Henry to it?
These arguments are intercut with angry debates about the propriety of Brooke's publishing her tell-all book. For Brooke it's a lifeline, salvation from her depression. Silda argues that it's Brooke's debt to her dead brother. Tripp says it's just Brooke being self-indulgent. Polly and Lyman see it as a vicious betrayal of family trust.
And just when you think you know whose side you should be on, Baitz introduces a revelation that forces a rethink of many earlier assumptions. Then he provides an epilogue that twists our perspective yet again.
I could have done without the final twist but I sure enjoyed the ride.