Jon Robin Baitz, who burst into New York theater as an eerily mature playwright in the late '80s, has always crafted smart work full of intimate emotions and big ideas. But "Other Desert Cities," written after a five-year detour in Hollywood, is the play we have been waiting for him to write.
That this is a major work won't surprise anyone who loved it at Lincoln Center Theater's Off-Broadway space last winter. Recast for Broadway with two new actors, the five-character family drama feels even more powerful -- a boldly conventional yet altogether gripping work that knows individual psychology as keenly as it understands the world around it.
Think Arthur Miller's moral conscience, Edward Albee's brutal wit plus an original sensibility that, ultimately, embraces these prickly, despairing, gut-conflicted people with unexpected tenderness. And what a showcase director Joe Mantello has created for these remarkable actors -- Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach, Thomas Sadoski from Off-Broadway, plus Judith Light and Rachel Griffiths -- who listen and react to one another with all the embedded frustration and inescapable bond of real family.
It is Christmas Eve, 2004, in the swanky-rustic Palm Springs home of two old-guard Hollywood players and Reagan Republicans (Channing, merciless, and Keach, heartbreaking) with a secret. Their sweet TV-producer son (Sadoski, so good he anchors the roiling emotions) has come for the holidays. Light, as his unhappily sober aunt, is more clearly beaten up by life than was the snappier Linda Lavin in the role. It's a less flashy, more believable portrayal of a woman too disgusted to get her hair touched up.
The revelation is Griffiths as Brooke, a blocked New York novelist with a history of depression, who arrives from Sag Harbor ostensibly to celebrate the sale of her new book with her family. When the excellent Elizabeth Marvel played the troubled character, her concerns seemed a bit boring and melodramatic. Griffiths (Brenda in "Six Feet Under," Sara in "Brothers & Sisters") has the feral, hyper-aware quality of a woodland animal -- one with equal parts outrage, damage and humor.
Brooke has written a memoir about the mysterious suicide of her radical brother during the Vietnam War. Is a writer's responsibility to herself or to family loyalty? Despite the familiarity of this crisis and a regret that the brother's politics are reduced to mental illness, this play is the real thing.