Other Desert Cities, the 2011 comedy/drama by Jon Robin Baitz, feels familiar. Actually, for audience members of a certain age it might initially feel dated. It isn’t. A superficial view of the play might also lead one to conclude it is fairly superficial. It isn’t that either. Like some of the swimming pools in desert enclaves of privilege like Palm Springs, it is surprisingly deep.
It is 2004. For the first time in several years, the members of the Wyeth family have come together to celebrate Christmas in the parents’ Palm Springs home. The home is one of those syntheses of luxurious taste and mid-century modern aesthetic that exist nowhere quite as they do in Palm Springs. The home speaks volumes about Lyman and Polly Wyeth. They are tasteful, private, conservative and rich.
Lyman was a film actor, though never a star, who became active in conservative California politics. Polly was a screen writer who gave up her career, along with her Jewish roots and Texas accent, to become a true believer in Reagan-era conservatism and, ultimately, the wife of an ambassador. The Wyeths were friends with the Bloomingdales and the Annenbergs and, of course, Ron & Nancy. Now they have retired to the desert for tennis, cocktails, dinners at the country club and shopping on Palm Canyon Drive.
Silda, Polly’s sister and former writing partner is staying with them. She is burned-out, broke, and fresh from her most recent stint in rehab. Polly and Lyman’s youngest son Trip, a successful, if unhappy, television producer has joined them for the holiday as has their daughter Brooke.Brooke is a writer who abandoned California for the East Coast. Her first novel was well received when it was published six years earlier. Since then she has struggled with depression and writer’s block and has recently ended a failed marriage. Her depression was severe enough to require hospitalization. Since retiring from public life, worrying about Brooke has become Lyman and Polly’s primary focus.
Brooke has brought copies of her recently completed book. Sold to a major publisher, it is scheduled for release in a few months. Excerpts are to appear in a prestigious national magazine in a few weeks. Rather than a novel, however, we learn this book is a memoir of Brooke’s life growing up as a Wyeth and it focuses on some tragic events in the family’s past. Brooke found catharsis in writing the book and it may be the best thing she’s ever written but she fears Lyman and Polly will prefer this particular wound not be reopened. The prospect of revealing, and being forced to publicly relive the darkest moment of their family’s history threatens to shred the already fragile fabric of the family’s relationship. Let the games begin!
What seems familiar, and superficially dated, about the play is the theme of children, especially children of privilege, rebelling against the politics and values of their parents. I am old enough to remember the late 1960’s and came of age in the 1970’s. Children of the counterculture in conflict with conservative parents over the war in Vietnam and, by extension, all the parents’ “middle-class” values was a common theme in the popular culture of the 1970’s. Given the lux, mid-century set, were it not for the Reagan and Bush references in the text it would be easy to imagine the children and parents arguing about the morality of a war in the jungle rather than a war in the desert.
Ultimately we realize these debates are not the substance of the play. Where we find depth is in exploring the nature of a family’s story. The events detailed in Brooke’s memoir are the shared story of the entire Wyeth family. Each having their own perspective, it is a given that they did not experience the tragic events what took place some 30 years earlier in the same way. Trip was a child. He barely remembers the events themselves but he grew up in the shadow of their aftermath. Brooke’s life was devastated in ways from which she has not yet recovered. Lyman and Polly’s lives were devastated as well but they faced those events as adults with broader commitments, not least the responsibility for Brooke and Trip.
The common chronology of events is a story that is different for each of them. But whose story is it to tell? And how is that decision altered when we learn that point-of-view is not the only variable. Lyman, Polly and Silda posses details of the story unknown to Brooke and Trip. There are secrets and the people keeping them are doing so for reasons of their own. Brooke may have chosen to write the story in the first person but her omniscience is literary form; not reality.
The play was originally titled Love and Mercy, the title of Brooke’s memoir. The final title, Other Desert Cities is a reference to a highway sign one sees on I-10 driving from Los Angeles toward Palm Springs. One can take the road to Palm Springs or go another direction toward the “Other Desert Cities”. From Brooke Wyeth’s point of view those cities are someplace else. Whether they are truly different, however, she cannot know.
The play premiered at Lincoln Center in January 2011 and moved to Broadway in November of that year. It was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.