Jon Robin Baitz can write a play with erudition and wisdom. He's been demonstrating that since 1987, when his remarkable The Film Society — about the staff of a South African prep school — premiered at Los Angeles Theatre Center before heading to Broadway. His early works (also including The Substance of Fire and Three Hotels) reveal an almost intimidating worldliness and literacy — Baitz grew up in South Africa and Brazil before attending and graduating from Beverly Hills High School — combined with the Greek classics–inspired moral indignation of Arthur Miller as filtered through the soul of Henrik Ibsen.
Baitz's latest, Other Desert Cities, a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, just opened at the Mark Taper Forum. It marks a notable shift in Baitz's work.
To his credit, Baitz is no longer blaming characters for their wrongdoing and weaknesses but treating all of his characters engaged in a clash of values with equanimity, leading to a play less indignant than prior works but also less exciting and perhaps less meaningful.
There's a softening of tone at work here, a tameness, though Other Desert Cities contains some very funny lines, laced with insight and humanity.
Over a Christmas family reunion in 2004 Palm Springs, among a tribe led by Reagan-like Hollywood Republicans, a left-leaning, depressive daughter, Brooke (Robin Weigert, a pleasingly chirpy performance that plausibly masks her character's history of emotional collapse), returns from Sag Harbor toting an explosive, about-to-be-published family memoir, a eulogy to her black-sheep, rabidly anti-war, anti-Bush brother whom she adored, and who is understood to have committed suicide after blowing up an Army recruitment center in Long Beach. Furthermore, selections from her manuscript have been chosen for publication in The New Yorker.
That magazine's looming deadline compels Brooke to get the blessing of her parents, Polly and Lyman Wyeth (JoBeth Williams and Robert Foxworth) for a work in which, with Brooke's constricted comprehension of events leading up to her brother's suicide, holds them accountable for his death.
Morally, Baitz is revisiting Arthur Miller's All My Sons, which holds a father, his duplicity and his shoddy business practices responsible for the death of his own fighter-pilot son, among other soldiers, during World War II.
More interesting for these times than Miller's condemnation of a corrupt patriarch are Baitz's questions about children's responsibility to their parents — particularly when their politics clash and when their parents are quasi-celebrities — and their right to tell in public the private agonies of their youth.
Brooke's father pleads for Brooke to hold off publishing her memoir until "after we're gone" — not an unreasonable request, given the potential damage inflicted to soul and reputation.
The issue of timing "free speech" is as much a part of the moral equation as the parents' pernicious actions and attitudes that Brooke feels so compelled to expose.
When she insists on her right to tell the truth now, she comes off more as a despot than a muckraker — particularly since, as the play will reveal and as her living brother Trip (Michael Weston) will confirm, her literary portraits of her parents are libelously reductive, and she's missing huge swaths of information about their actions towards her missing brother.
If George W. Bush launched an invasion of Iraq with flawed intelligence, lefty Brooke is repeating a microcosm of exactly the same crime on this stage: She's a journalist rushing to print, and consequently to war, without reliable intelligence.
Thus Baitz establishes a fascinating conundrum about truth that pits a child's right to free speech against her parents' right to privacy. For spoiler reasons, the plot shifts through which Baitz abandons that conundrum can't be revealed. Suffice it to say, nothing is what it seems and, because of that, Baitz's arguments, lucidly articulated by his varied characters, amount to so much sea foam dissipating upon meeting a boulder's stern rebuke.
One could argue that Baitz's ultimate point is that words and behaviors mean nothing, that his play's meaning is strategically ambiguous, that people will do and say anything to get by from day to day. But that's a hard-sell concept in a work so dedicated to behaviors and language.
One feels robbed leaving the performance thinking about the plot's schematics rather than the playwright's far more intriguing yet abandoned moral quagmires. After all, if the play is saying that people say and do things only for expedience, and that principle is simply a mirage, that seems neither true nor interesting, compared with the ideas that the playwright set up and walked away from.
Robert Egan stages a sleek production in which it's ultimately hard to invest emotionally in these characters, which is a problem when depicting a family subsumed by dysfunction. The fault doesn't lie with the actors: Foxworth's gruff patriarch contains an endearing nobility. As his wife, Polly, Williams' steely resolve is as persuasive as Weigert's pained defiance as their daughter, Brooke. Portraying her brother, Trip, a reality TV producer, Weston has wise arguments saturated in intelligence and compassion.
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There's a stock comic cameo by Jeannie Berlin as Silda Grauman, Polly's clearly Jewish sister, fished out of rehab and revealing Polly's Semitic heritage amidst this WASP tribe in retreat. Silda exists for comic relief, which Berlin skilfully provides, but her role as a moral cipher in the book drama comes and goes, like so many of the play's more scintillating features.
The play opens with repartee, but the actors are situated across the broad width of Takeshi Kata's mid-20th-century living room set. (A breadth of desert rocks sweeps over the top of the set, which is anchored by a functioning stone fireplace.) In speaking their witty repartee, the actors have to shout across the stage to be heard, in a style out of sync with their playful dialogue. This strain eventually dissolves when they physically cross in closer to each other. However, a lingering sense of artifice works against the intimacy that this very realistic play demands — even if that intimacy is a blend of love and revulsion.
That subtle emotional distance between the audience and this family was expressed by one patron, a man around 70 years old. On leaving the theater after the show, he remarked tellingly, "Boy, oh boy, I guess I come from a happy family. The play was good, but I leave plays about families like this and I think to myself, thank God."
OTHER DESERT CITIES | By Jon Robin Baitz | Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through Jan. 6 | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org