Secrets have been much in the news recently, political, military, business, social. In the case of Other Desert Cities, they are familial. During the course of the play much discussion ensues about who owns family secrets? What if one member of the family breaks the family trust? What if the family member does not know the depth of the betrayal? What if other family members do not tell all, but only ask that the trust not be broken? Is there retribution if the trust is broken? Baitz has said, “I strive to find the exact point in a narrative where the personal and the political intersect perfectly, because I find the two things completely inseparable.”
Jon Robin Baitz was born in Los Angeles. Because of his father’s occupation, he spent parts of his childhood years in South Africa and Brazil. The time abroad has greatly influenced his work. He has said, “South Africa made me who I am. Being party to, not mere witness to, pure and simple state-run racism…is the genesis for my interests in how systems operate. I write about that as much as I do parents and children; they’re exactly the same thing.”
The genesis for Other Desert Cities came from his writing and producing television’s "Brother & Sisters" series. He created the series and wrote most of the episodes of the first year. During that year occurred the writers’ strike that allowed the networks to abrogate the writers’ contracts. As the network and Baitz had already had conflicts in the direction that the series was to take, the network fired him and continued the series for another four seasons. He was deeply wounded and vented in public, in blog postings. He withdrew to eastern Long Island to write a play. “I couldn’t have written this play without the 'Brothers & Sisters' experience, and the rants and the rage.”
Family drama has long been the staple, heart and glory of the American theatre. Being strongly influenced by Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, Eugene O’Neill developed the American version followed by among others Elmer Rice, Clifford Odets, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, William Inge, Lorraine Hansberry, Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard, Tracey Letts, and to be added to that list, Jon Robin Baitz. The family drama continues to flourish on today’s television with such series as “This Is Us,” “Nashville,” “The Americans” and, in a baser version all daytime soap operas.
One great difference between what is written for the stage and for television is language. Television requires language to be simple, direct, short and to move the action along. In the theatre language can be longer, more eloquent, even poetic. The language in Other Desert Cities is some of the strongest to be found in recent plays. Each character has at least one or more long speech in which to be eloquent. Many of the characters’ lines border on the poetic. Within the opening lines the tone is set.
“Polly: …in that little village of yours there on the edge of the sea….”
“Polly: The story of your brother. It’s drugs. Your whole generation, awash in drugs. The provocations, the absurd beard, the refusal to shower, to bathe, to adhere to the basic civilities of family life. He was stoned from the age of fifteen on, it made him dumb and it triggered his depression. Three generations, three generations of escapism. Lost. Drugs. Drugs actually destroyed the American century. Up the hill there, up the hill in Indio, the meth addicts, and you see them coming into town, wrecks”
“Trip: And we’re all getting older and if this is heading towards desolation, which I can see it is, and you will all regret it, so give your daughter a pass and your sister, too, both of you, stop fighting like weasels in a pit because on your last day on this planet, you’ll be scared and it won’t matter as you take your last breath—all what will have mattered is how you loved.”
“Lyman: Look, despite your abhorrent and repugnant lefty politics, we want you to know we’re damn proud of you.”
“Lyman: If you understood what you were doing, you would hang your head in shame. I feel sick. I feel like this is a dream. I’m losing another child here! But I will never be able to…I will never be able to love you again. I only had a little bit of my heart intact after we lost Henry, and what’s left is breaking, we’d be done as a family.”
“Silda: God, I love that smell, that vapor, if I could just live in that scent, I’d be happy. I’d never need to take a drink again, I’d just breathe it in.”
These are only a few examples of many that could have been chosen. In the context of the play, and as these word are heard on stage, they all ring natural and true. As must happen in a play, all the language must be appropriate for the situations, characters and tone. In this play we find/hear no “cool,” “awesome,” “amazing,” or other examples of the paltry vocabulary prevalent in these times. We have here a playwright who loves, respects, and knows how to use the English language.
The premiere production of Other Desert Cities was at Lincoln Center Theatre, the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre , New York City, January, 2011, directed by Joe Mantello and with cast: Elizabeth Marvel (Brooke), Stockard Channing (Polly), Stacey Keach (Lyman), Linda Lavin (Silda), Thomas Sadoski (Trip). After a limited run, it closed and reopened in a Broadway Theatre in November, 2011, with three original cast members and replacements, Rachel Griffiths (Brooke) and Judith Light (Silda). This production received five nominations for 2012 Tony Awards: Best Play, Best Actress in a Play (Channing), Best Featured Actress in a Play (Light), Best Scenic Design (John Lee Beatty), and Best Lighting Design (Kenneth Posner). Judith Light won for Best Featured Actress in a Play. It was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
In the following years productions have been given by many of the major regional theatres and smaller professional theatres across the country. Unicorn Theatre in Kansas City and St. Louis Repertory Theatre presented the play. In December, 2010, Lou and I saw a preview performance of Other Desert Cities in New York. Here is what I wrote in the journal about that production. (After many hours of study and weeks of rehearsals, some of my thoughts may have changed about the play.):
“This is a new play being presented by Lincoln Center Theatre at the Mitzi Newhouse. It continues that line plays about the dysfunctional American family with secret(s) to hide, the rebellious children, the distant uncommunicative parents, alcoholism that runs in the family, and, of course, the secrets that are not discussed. To make this play au courant the parents are highly visible conservative Republicans, now living in a kind of exile in the California desert with the mother’s sister (she’s straight out of Albee’s A Delicate Balance) as a permanent house guest. Lyman is the former national chairman of the Republican Party. The daughter returns for a Christmas visit with her own bomb. She is a novelist and has now written a memoir about the family with emphasis on the time period of her brother’s death. Baitz can write dialogue, crisp and listenable. It sounds the way people used to sound on stage, literate, witty and in the show-down scenes go for the jugular. The characters have depth and dimension. They are charming, loving, compassionate, cruel, and sometimes irritating. The plot is well structured although somewhat predictable—maybe he’s done too much writing for television. At some point I heard the line that told me where the resolution would go. It did. The bulk of the play takes place at Christmas 2004 then the coda jumps to March 2010. The coda was unexpected and took a turn that I had not foreseen.
“I did cringe once. It came at the obligatory moment when some character must say, “we can’t keep these secrets any longer.” In this play Lyman is the one who gets the line. As this was only the sixth preview performance, maybe the writer, or the director, or the actor will revise the moment into something more subtle.
“What a pleasure to watch talented, skilful actors at their top-notch best. Stockard Channing was stunning, always the right inflection, timing, gesture, move. Stacy Keach and Linda Lavin were not far behind. Elizabeth Marvel started out on one-note and took some time to move on, but she never failed to keep attention. This may have been the writing, not the actor.
“A side note: we saw the sixth preview performance; it doesn’t officially open until mid-January. About 10 minutes into the performance, some stage lights went out to be followed shortly by all the lights. Instantly the house lights came up with an announcement from the stage manager that the light board had gone down and the performance would resume in a moment. The board was rebooted, the stage lights came up, the house went dark, Stacy Keach went back to the beginning of the speech he had been saying and without missing a beat continued the scene. I thought we were at the Vandivort [Center Theatre]. If only we could handle it as smoothly as it was there.”