Rubicon’s excellent new production of Other Desert Cities gives theatergoers in Santa Barbara and Ventura the chance to experience — or perhaps revisit — one of the best American plays of the new century. Set in Palm Springs and starring an outstanding ensemble, including Amanda McBroom as the brittle Republican matriarch Polly Wyeth, Cities undergirds a rather traditional family holiday setup with a thoughtful political subtext and then crowns it with loads of effective contemporary repartee.
The ideological split between committed conservatives Lyman (Granville Van Dusen) and Polly Wyeth (McBroom) and their liberal adult children, Brooke (Michelle Duffy) and Trip (Trey Ellett) stands for much more than the ordinary generational tension over politics. In fact, playwright Jon Robin Baitz makes the explicit connections to recent American history in this story operate so as to question the meanings we typically attach to such familiar divisions. Yes, there’s a great twist in the second act, and, no, I’m not going to reveal it, but I can say that few who enter the theater will leave feeling quite as certain about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys as they did when they came in — and that’s a good thing.
It’s interesting that director Brian McDonald cast this drama with actors who have had success in musical theater. Amanda McBroom is of course an award-winning songwriter, a great actress, and a cabaret diva of the first rank, but Michelle Duffy and Trey Ellett also have substantial experience in musical theater. It shows in the steady, syncopated rhythm they bring to the single setting’s many entrances and exits and in the exquisite timing with which they land Baitz’s many zinging punch lines. As Lyman Wyeth, Van Dusen steers expertly from the broadest slapstick — check out how he reenacts his character’s days as a much-beloved Hollywood ham — to the most earnest pathos. As Silda Grauman — Polly’s recently sober, salt-of-the-earth sister — Deborah Taylor also conveys a suitably broad range of emotions and reactions, thereby adding considerable depth to the second act’s startling revelations.
The best reason to see Other Desert Cities, however, is for the chemistry that develops between a mother and her only daughter. Headstrong Brooke gives Michelle Duffy a character to play whose every move flickers between righteousness and self-deception. Her tell-all memoir about the Wyeth family scandal is the axe that hangs over this family Christmas gathering by a thread, and it’s this fateful premise that allows McBroom to take her time building a truly monumental performance as Polly, the Nancy Reagan–like control freak with a dark secret.
Back when Ronald Reagan was still a governor and protestors roamed the campuses of the University of California system looking for an angry fix, the process of torqueing things up, of pushing one’s seeming opponents into an emotional frenzy through tactics of provocation, was known as “heightening the contradictions.” If something really bad happened, as it often did, and people got hurt, as they still often do, advocates of change on both the left and the right sometimes celebrated the adverse effects of these clashes, with each side believing that things had to get worse before they could get better. In Other Desert Cities, the consequences of this headlong approach to civic process get screened as the home movies of one tortured family, and the result is highly compelling theater.