R.D. Laing’s radical book, The Politics of the Family (1969), featured the way family interactions can mirror a political nuclear war at the evening dinner table and how mental illness is a doorway to revelation. Ronnie, as he was called in the old days, illustrated how “there is concerted family resistance to discovering what is going on, and there are complicated stratagems to keep everyone in the dark."
Jon Robin Baitz’s play, Other Desert Cities at the SpeakEasy Stage Company, presents a brilliant experience of Laing’s societal diagnosis, one layer at a time. Baitz also wrote episodes for the TV show “The West Wing” and created the five season TV series “Brothers and Sisters.” In an L.A. interview Baitz says that:
“On ‘Brothers & Sisters,’ I tried to write a show about an emerging matriarch and what America was like right now . . . I didn’t get to explore that on television. But I ended up being able to tell that story on Broadway."
With an underlying morality at play in all his work, he represents conflicting values of right and wrong in every character. All actions have “consequences,” says more than one character.
Paul Diagneault, Producing Artistic Director at Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage Company, says that Baitz, not only “speaks across generations,” but is also “the Arthur Miller of our time.” Baitz does use the naturalistic “slice of life” style, sometimes pejoratively called “kitchen sink realism,” even though “The West Wing” snapped episodically from one cryptically explained crisis to another. His is not the ragged dialogue of David Mamet. In Other Desert Cities the characters, refugees from that old glam-town Hollywood, actually speak in full sentences. This is fitting, because many of them once had some degree of success as writers.
And therein lies the rub.
A soon-to-be published (in the New Yorker, no less) memoir by daughter Brooke Wyeth threatens to reveal darkly hidden family secrets. Brother Henry, presumed dead by suicide, was a collaborator in a radical Weathermen bombing; here a homeless veteran was “burned to a crisp,” as his mother describes in scorching terms. His hard line Republican parents, present-day cronies of the likes of Nancy Reagan and her posse, do ot want closely guarded dark secret to come to light.
Henry could actually be a present day incarnation of Ronnie Laing himself, a life-long rebel of prolonged adolescence; he repeatedly wrote about his cold-hearted parents and how he tried to unsuccessfully buy into their system of beliefs. He was a radical cult hero for the New Age mental health practitioners of the 60s and 70s; he felt that the mentally ill reflected the insanity of society, wherein the “mind police” (the psychiatrists) shackled their patients to an insane belief system. Brooke Wyeth’s psychological problems reflect her dysfunctional family and their rigid political beliefs.
Brooke, fresh from a mental institution (possibly Boston’s McLean’s Hospital), is trying to do her own personal Tikkun Olam, (repair of the world) by unveiling this family secret. However, as the play proceeds, we learn how one layer of family secrets can unearth a treasure chest of disclosures. Mother Polly Wyeth, whom Nancy Reagan taught to control all aspects of life and publicity, ruthlessly threatens to disown her daughter over the bad press that she would bring to her life. Father Lyman Wyeth, a Jewish former actor turned politician like Ronald Reagan, enjoys Polly’s hovering over him as well as her praise about his acting abilities; he was famous for his 50 onscreen dying scenes. Younger brother, Trip Wyeth, famous for creating a popular TV reality show, tries to keep the peace. Henry never appears, even in mantelpiece family pictures, but his memory drives the action of the play. Recovering alcoholic Aunt Silda, who once wrote a popular Gidget-like series, speaks truth to power, acerbically, when she is sober.
Of course once we think we understand each character’s role, the rug will be pulled from under us. As director Scott Edmiston posed in his pre-show talk: “Do we ever really truly know anyone?” Even though the play is written in the old style of Ibsen, the insights become almost surreal. A continual skirmish of the “Goyish” façade of the Gentile Texas WASPS against the probing Jewish heritage, where one one question gets answered with another question, takes center stage, This war gets writ petty through the family’s everyday dialogue about relationships and the larger political picture of the time. It is the Jewish unlayering of the Talmudic onionskin of truth, which becomes the main philosophical underpinnings of the play.
I found that joyfully fascinating.
Anne Gottlieb, a playwright herself and a Resident Scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center, does not disappoint. Now for the sixth time collaborating with director Scott Edmiston, she becomes the 40-ish incarnation of adolescent rebellion in her body language: witness her as jumpy, defiant, arms akimbo, insecure, needing parental approval, insightful, howling, and seeking the “truth” of who she is. In other productions, I have seen her range from being a glamorous gal without a chink in her armor to being a vulnerable struggling writer.
Nancy E. Carroll as Aunt Silda, enacts the boozy languorous arms-dangling has-been talent, who encourages her niece to come out of the closet of despair. Aunt Silda is really Brooke’s mother figure, whereas Polly, as her biological bully mom rationalizes how she prepares her daughter for the worst in life. Polly, skillfully played by Karen MacDonald, displays the “not a hair out of place” steely resolve of a two-dimensional lady with a secret.
While Christoper M. Smith’s portrayal of Trip Wyeth is well done with California surfing realism, I sometimes had trouble hearing his words when he was talking to other characters. My theatre buddy and I had questions at first about Munson Hicks as Daddy Lyman, an assimilated Jew. He certainly has a great Shakespearean voice and can project well in any theatre. While he can demonstrate dying like a ham, we were puzzled at his ramrod steely posture. However, when he unthawed, especially during the climax with the collusion of Karen MacDonald, where they both become haggard doddering old folks, barely able to take a step, we recanted our doubts. His frozen body was a reflection of the price, which the father’s character paid to guard the family secrets. Here Smith also enlivened Tripp’s character with strength. Both men rose to the occasion in this jaw-dropping dramatic moment.
Scott Edmiston did it again. From directing the retro style set, the costumes with psychedelic colors and typically black uniform of writers, to the music echoing of the Beach Boys, his usual fluidity was sparkling. He read the play poolside in Palm Springs, which was Raitz’s stage setting for the play. He knew immediately who to cast for each part. No auditions required.
One small bit of trivia that I can’t resist here: I learned that Baitz collects fountain pens. Self-described sole Jewish kid in the WASP finishing schools of White South Africa, he probably didn’t have a bar mitzvah. Did he intuit at any point, that the bar mitzvah gift of choice for his time was a fountain pen?
To see preview scenes from Other Desert Cities see: http://www.speakeasystage.com/doc.php?section=showpage&page=otherdesert
For more information and ticket sales see: http://www.speakeasystage.com/index.php