'Other Desert Cities' at Arena Stage

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Entertainment,Theater,Barbara Mackay

The final production of Arena Stage's 2012-2013 season is an intense, funny drama about generational conflict, political turmoil and familial survival. Jon Robin Baitz's "Other Desert Cities" takes place in the well-appointed Palm Springs home of a conservative, wealthy ex-actor, ex-politician Lyman Wyeth (Larry Bryggman) and his perfectly coiffed, imperious wife, Polly (Helen Carey).

The play begins on Christmas Eve 2004 with the return of the Wyeth's liberal daughter, Brooke (Emily Donahoe), from her home in Sag Harbor, N.Y., for the first time in six years. The Wyeths' son, Trip (Scott Drummond), is there to see his sister. Also on hand is Polly's alcoholic sister, Silda Grauman (Martha Hackett), who lives with the Wyeths.

Brooke is an intelligent, sensitive young woman who has suffered a nervous breakdown, but insists she has gotten her life back together in the process of finishing her new book. Yet her controlling mother is skeptical, as Brooke has uncharacteristically not shared any of the book with her family.

Baitz is a serious analyst of psychology and interested in far more than tantalizing plot lines. The creator of the TV drama "Brothers & Sisters," Baitz is known for his acute insight into how individuals relate to one another. "Other Desert Cities" is full of humor and spirited dialogue, but the heart of the drama is Baitz's deep understanding of the integrity of this family's emotional infrastructure.

Onstage
'Other Desert Cities'
» Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW
» When: Through May 26
» Info: $40 to $85; 202-488-3300; arenastage.org

When it turns out that Brooke's next book is not a novel but a memoir that will bring up a painful period in the family's history, the playful divide between Brooke and her the parents becomes an irreconcilable gulf.

In the skillful hands of director Kyle Donnelly, the production moves swiftly. Carey is superb as the suave, well-dressed Polly, who learned most of what she knows about surviving life from Nancy Reagan. Donahoe's Brooke is a well-grounded, balanced character who is as open about her nervous breakdown as she is opposed to the whole idea of California.

Drummond excels as the brother who tries to defend both Brooke and his parents. Hackett is delightful as the recently sober outsider whose insight into the family's problems is refreshingly funny. Although on press night he had some trouble finding the appropriate vocal level, Bryggman is convincing as the blustering Lyman.

Kate Edmunds' set places the Wyeths in a huge living room with a sunken fireplace, surrounded by Christmas presents and framed photos of Barry Goldwater and Dinah Shore. It's a perfect colorless environment for a confrontation among what at the start are five people who fiercely resent one another. The play allows those characters to share their misunderstandings and through their anger and argument to eventually reconcile.

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Barbara Mackay

Special to The Washington Examiner
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