“Other Desert Cities” in Previews at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center

A few days ago I attended a preview performance of Jon Robin Baitz's new play, "Other Desert Cities," at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in Lincoln Center.  Joe Mantello directs the cast of Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach, Linda Lavin, Elizabeth Marvel and Thomas Sadoski in a drama about an unusual family buffeted by the political winds of the late 20th century as played out in the first decade of the 21st.

As this was a preview of a new play that was not to open officially for another three weeks or so, it is probably a bit of a work in progress, and I expect there will be changes between what I saw and what audiences will see by the time of opening night.  I found the piece to be constantly engaging and diverting, although some of the dialogue needs a bit more work to avoid artificiality — ideally one strives for dialogue that sounds like it would be spoken by real people, not read aloud, and there are a few places where some extended bits still had this "read aloud" feeling — and I think he really needs to do a bit more with the final scene, which is a bit of a let-down after what has come before.  It would be really interesting if a certain extra character actually made an appearance in that final scene … but I doubt that would be practicable or even consistent with the plotting.  The entire play builds up intense curiosity about that missing character, is all I will say.  But I don't want to put any plot spoilers here, so I'll only give the set-up…

We are looking in at the Christmas 2004 gathering of the Wyatt family in Palm Springs, California.  Father and mother (Stacy Keach and Stockard Channing) are old-school conservative Republicans, father a retired diplomat-actor-California party leader, mother a somewhat brittle ex-Hollywood screenwriter and political fundraiser-hostess.  Also there is mother's sister (Linda Lavin), her scrappy former screenwriting collaborator at the other end of the political scale – and the play's big scene-stealer.  Two of their children are also present, the son (Thomas Sadoski) — a successful television producer — and the daughter (Elizabeth Marvel), a writer visiting for the first time since parents retired and moved to "the desert," on the rebound from serious psychological trauma that required hospitalization but now bouncing back with a new novel to follow up on the one she had published six years previously.  The parents hope this Christmas gathering will break the ice with their estranged daughter and re-establish smooth familial relations…   And that's all I should say without giving too much away.

I trust that over the next few weeks improvements will be made to what is already a fine piece of work.  I would recommend it, even in its present unfinished state, as a serious inquiry into some of the political and family issues that have frequently reared their heads over the past few decades.

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