Story: The Wyeths share their surname with a family of famous artists who counted celebrities among their friends and admirers. So it is with Lyman Wyeth, a retired actor who gave up success on the silver screen for patronage roles with the Grand Old Party, which was led by his friend and fellow former actor Ronald Reagan. Lyman was good as a leading man in the pictures and just as polished as a genial Republican ambassador.
He shares his life and politics with his glib wife Polly, who made her own career in Tinseltown with her sister Silda as screenplay writers of a series of comedies in the ‘60s known as the Hillary movies. So, it’s no surprise that daughter Brooke is a novelist and son Trip is a producer of TV reality shows.
Lyman and Polly are delighted that Brooke and Trip are joining them at their posh Palm Springs abode for Christmas in 2004, as is recovering alcoholic Silda. While Silda, Brooke and Trip share more liberal political views, it’s Brooke who ups the angst ante when she reveals that she has written a memoir about her late, older brother Henry and the reasons behind his suicide.
Brooke is convinced that the work will serve as a catharsis for her own depression, but her parents are anything but amused at the prospect of old wounds damaging their reputations.
Highlights: You know you’re in the presence of wealth when you look up from your seat and observe the stately elegance of Michael Ganio’s set design that envelops the entire Rep stage. It’s a formidable edifice with an imposing roof, grand glass doors that provide a breathtaking view of the Palm Springs desert and a great room filled with expensive, chic furniture.
That is the world of the Wyeths as perceived by playwright Jon Robin Baitz, whose Pulitzer Prize-finalist drama opened off-Broadway in 2011 before transferring to Broadway later that year. Rep artistic director Steven Woolf brings his own spin to Baitz’s baiting family yarn with a generally satisfying presentation of an uneven and often uninspiring script.
Other Info: Whether it’s Baitz’s writing of Brooke’s persona or director Woolf and/or performer Celeste Ciulla’s interpretation, it’s difficult to sympathize with a main character who is whiny, self-pitying, self-centered, spoiled and wearisome throughout the play’s two acts. With Brooke poisoning the waters with her churlish attitude, the two hours plus devoted to Baitz’s story becomes a challenge beyond the plotline itself.
That his script could be a Pulitzer Prize finalist says more about the selection process of the prestigious awards than it does about Baitz’s drama. Still, if you get beyond the tedious clichés of conservative and liberal outlooks and the melodrama of underlying family role-playing, there is an intriguing development in the show’s climax that offers a surprising expansion of characters that we learn are more than they appear to be.
Woolf has filled the three older roles with savvy and sophisticated performers who know how to develop the playwright’s characters to make them both recognizable and animated. As well-heeled raconteurs Lyman and Polly, Anderson Matthews and Dee Hoty artfully fill the bill as familiar Republican stalwarts who are all about tennis and country clubs on the surface.
When Brooke forces their hand, though, with her tell-all memoir, we see the extreme degrees to which Lyman and Dee will go to protect the interests of their nuclear unit. First, Hoty’s Polly clinically dissects her sister and daughter with the precision of a renowned surgeon. Then, Matthews takes center stage and shows us stunning depth in the heretofore shallow reaches of Lyman’s personality. That scene alone rescues Baitz’s script from its previous mediocrity.
Glynis Bell, ever the professional, has a grand time as the chronically harping and destructive Silda, a woman who doesn’t mind at all biting the hand that feeds her in her mentally incapacitated but sarcastic manner. Alex Hanna does well as the surviving son, Trip, who was only five years old when his brother disappeared in a suicidal leap off a ferry but can appreciate the gravitas of the crisis brewing over Brooke’s impending book.
Ciulla is saddled with an unlikable character, but certainly brings Brooke’s shallow bitterness to the fore throughout. Costume designer David Kay Mickelson accentuates her lost spirit with an array of frumpy outfits that contrast most unfortunately with the flamboyant attire sported by her parents, brother and aunt.
Rusty Wandall’s wry selection of Norman Rockwell-style Christmas tunes warbled by the likes of Frank Sinatra underscores the WASPish approach to family life of Lyman and Polly, and Phil Monet’s lighting highlights key dramatic moments.
Other Desert Cities, a reference to a highway sign that welcomes travelers to Palm Springs and surrounding towns, is much like road travel: Filled with long stretches of tedium, but ultimately paying off with a surprising destination.
Play: Other Desert Cities
Company: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through March 9
Tickets: $20-$76; contact 968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jerry Naunheim Jr.