“Families get terrorized by their weakest member,” announces Polly Wyeth, the strong-willed matriarch of a rather dysfunctional family, midway through Jon Robin Baitz’ 2011 Broadway play, Other Desert Cities. The question at stake is just which member of this family is the doing the most terrorizing, and it’s a tough call. Here are the contestants, all currently hurling insults at Arena Stage:
Lyman Wyeth (Larry Bryggman): retired actor-turned politician. One-time head of the RNC who served as an ambassador under Ronald Reagan, Ronnie to him. (They’re old pals.) Now most concerned with reminiscing and improving his tennis serve. “I don’t like confrontations,” he says, trying to call let.
Polly Wyeth (Helen Carey): Lyman’s wife. Frequent shopper at the Palm Springs’ Saks who pillories her children’s wardrobe choices in one sentence and their mental wellbeing in the next. “You dress like a refugee from a library in Kabul,” she tells her pill-popping daughter, Brooke.
Silda Grauman (Martha Hackett): Polly’s sister, and her nominee for weakest link. Just out of rehab and not always a gracious guest. “You’re not a Texan, you’re a Jew,” Silda hollers, spewing disdain for Polly’s GOP politics and goyish antics.
Brooke Wyeth (Emily Donahoe): fortyish freelance writer. Manic-depressive and nearly divorced, she comes home for the holidays bearing a memoir filled with family secrets. “Strangers are a cakewalk compared to you,” she tells her mother.
Trip Wyeth (Scott Drummond): youngest kid by nearly 10 years. Proud producer of Jury of Your Peers, a courtroom reality show for C-list celebrities. He’s beginning to regret spending Christmas at home when he knew so many “girls with fun families in beach houses where…nobody is trying to fucking, you know, assassinate each other.”
Henry Wyeth: The oldest Wyeth child, Henry committed suicide some 30 years ago after being implicated in an anti-Vietnam War bombing plot. He’s not onstage, except in one framed picture, but as the subject of Brooke’s new book, he’s the source of much terror.
The first half the show is all vim and vinegar, though the audience at a Sunday matinee provided such a predictable laugh track, the theater felt like a sitcom set. The weak link, acting-wise, is Donahoe, who struggled to project in the Fichandler’s cavernous, in-the-round space. Brooke’s a tough character to sympathize with, and it didn’t help that she came off like a sad-faced Labrador.
The rest of the cast is fantastic, however, and Baitz is a brilliant writer who carries wordplay as far as he can. Almost too far when it comes to the Reagan puns. But it’s Christmas Eve in this household, and even in Palm Springs, a chill will soon fall over the desert. When the family settles in for a long winter’s chat, be prepared for a tears and a resolution that may weaken even those most cynical of theatergoing hearts.