The theme of family ghosts that refuse to stay buried is gold dust to American playwrights, and it’s central to Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities. In 2011, this play, with a star-studded cast, was well received on Broadway (it was also a finalist for the Pulitzer). Seeing it at the Walnut in a more modest but quite fine production, we can judge for ourselves.
Baitz’s subject is the formidable Wyeth family – parents Polly and Lyman, adult children Brooke and Trip – who seem to have everything going for them, including intelligence, charm, prestige and financial success (just look at the Lyman’s palatial Palm Springs home, a model of mid-century fabulousness). Sure, there are minor tensions – the older Lymans’ Republican leanings annoy the younger ones. But when Brooke, a writer, confronts her parents about her dead brother Henry, things go seriously off the rails. You see, years ago, Henry took part in a catastrophic anti-war protest that forever dimmed his family’s future.
Other Desert Cities is part generational comedy, part family reckoning, and neither is completely successful. There are some funny lines, but the wit could be sharper. The darker issues are cleverly plotted, but the writing never cuts as deeply as it could. Much of the script is a too-tidily constructed series of polarized debates: parents v. children, liberal v. conservative, keeping family secrets v. living out loud. Still, it’s entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking, and the last two scenes pack a wallop.
Under the fluid and assured hand of director Kate Galvin, the Walnut’s Other Desert Cities is visually handsome and well acted across the board. In one sense, at least, it’s an improvement over the Broadway version – this ensemble actually feels convincingly like a family (on Broadway, it was hard to forget we were watching a series of bravura star-turns).
Through March 2, Walnut St. Theatre, 825 Walnut St., 215-574-3550, walnutstreettheatre.org