When the stage lights come up on actress Brenda Withers as Other Desert Cities begins, she intones, “This endless sunshine. It’s so predictable.”
In those few words, writer Jon Robin Baitz packs layers of symbolism. On the surface, the sunshine is synonymous with therapeutic and geriatric Palm Springs, Calif., where the story is set, at Christmas 2004.
As familiar as I am with Armonk’s Whippoorwill Hall, both from the audience as a patron and from the stage as an actor, I barely recognized it after the magical transformation wrought by Hudson Stage scenic designer David L. Arsenault.
His gleaming set is a stunner, with a dreamy backdrop of floor-to-ceiling picture windows peering into the mountains and palms of the California desert as if you could not only touch but smell their earthy fragrance.
About that symbolism that Baitz baits us with: Where the Wyeth family is concerned, “endless sunshine” is about to be eclipsed by a cloud that rains down the kind of recrimination and resentment that rips apart the closest of families.
As for “predictable”… all I have to say is Ha! I dare you to predict where this story ends up. It’s as much mystery as high dudgeon drama.
The only thing that would have made this beautifully balanced, by turns light-and-dark entertainment more intriguing is if I was sitting next to a Reagan Republican (RR), or even in back or in front of one, to observe that person’s reactions.
For all I know, the silver fox who sat in front of me was an RR, though I suspect his hair was too lengthy and artsy to fit that profile.
No matter. I was more than satisfied watching the Reagan Republicans on stage, led by paterfamilias Lyman Wyeth (Malachy Cleary), a retired Hollywood B-movie star whose loyalty to the Grand Old Party earned him a coveted U.S. ambassadorship.
If Lyman’s career arc sounds more than vaguely familiar — even presidential — you’re as right as he is to the right. He served under President Reagan, and is married to Nancy Reagan-worshipping Polly (Colleen Zenk).
Somewhat ironically, she’s a retired screenwriter, a vocation not brimming with right-wing females. Polly and sister Silda Grauman (Peggy J. Scott) were creative partners in the craft of turning out light comedies.
That explains the zingers that the quick-witted Mr. Baitz plants on their equally sharp tongues. Those are some garrulous genes they inherited.
Silda, though, would rather be righteous than right and doesn’t subscribe to her sister’s politics of pretension and bully-pulpit persuasion.
“You’re not Texan,” Silda chides Polly. “You’re a Jew.” A Jew sporting a Christmas tree, the better to hang with the blue bloods and mask her true bloodline. “Telling the truth is a very expensive hobby,” Polly warns whomever is listening.
Even the high-style home interior on stage conjured by Mr. Arsenault has a Wrightness about it–a vintage Frank Lloyd Wright Palm Springs moderne abode. It’s a gorgeous piece of stagecraft that also is coolly functional, with a sunken living room, a majestic fieldstone fireplace, and a tidy little bar that gets plenty of visits from this contentious clan, thirsting for self-medication.
The storyline by Mr. Baitz revolves around the privileged and proud Wyeth family, which includes children Brooke (Brenda Withers), a newly-successful novelist; Trip (Davy Raphaely), producer of a popular reality series, “Jury of Your Peers”; and a black sheep son, Henry, who fell in with an underground cult of anti-war domestic terrorists that blew up a recruiting office, claiming the life of a homeless veteran.
Disconsolate, Henry went off the deep end, literally, with evidence that he drowned himself by jumping off a ferry into icy waters. A suicide note was left behind.
As the play unfolds, Brooke is welcomed back by the brood after years of hospitalization for drug addiction and depression. Her brother’s descent into oblivion became too much for her to handle. Now that she’s in full recovery, Brooke has what she thinks is exciting news: she just finished a new book.
The good news quickly turns sour when Brooke elaborates that it’s a tell-all memoir about her high-and-mighty family. The carefully nurtured veneer worn by the preening Polly and status-conscious Lyman is about to be shattered by their “leftie” daughter. It’s a tough way to find out how much mightier is the pen than the sword.
Jon Baitz proves that adage himself with razor-sharp observations that slice open nuggets of wisdom and withering criticism. “Families are terrified by their weakest member,” says Polly. “This is America. We get warm and fuzzy about war,” says Silda.
She’s not finished either: “These people driven by fear have taken ownership of an entire country just to protect the way things were,” Silda says of the Palm Springs $1000-a-plate benefit set that are Polly’s and Lyman’s bosom buddies.
Polly is so horrified by the prospect of family secrets being laid bare in the book — which will ostracize her and Lyman from their ultra-conservative friends — that she threatens never to speak to her daughter again. Silda, like an angel on the shoulder, urges Brooke not to back down: “Fight on. You have ideas. They only have fear.”
Brenda Withers’ Brooke is a relentless fireball of energy that drives the narrative and spars spiritedly with her Ice Queen mother Polly. Colleen Zenk told me in an interview that she didn’t audition for that role. Director Dan Foster offered it to her, telling Ms. Zenk’s agent he never had seen a better match between character and actor.
The actress amply fulfills Mr. Foster’s perceptive instincts with a powerful performance. A veteran of more than 30 years’ standing on legendary soap opera As the World Turns (as Barbara Ryan), Ms. Zenk’s rigid posture and haughty attitude signal what Polly avers is the “way to live… order, precision, discipline.”
Yet, we also are not blind to the deep, deep hurt that hides behind her veil of posing and carefully manicured pride.
Brooke and Aunt Silda see life differently. They fire back that Polly and her kind have no time for compassion but plenty of time to indulge in intolerance. Silda castigates her for the “zealots who have overtaken your party.”
Malachy Cleary is outstanding as Lyman, who can kid about his best talent being the death scenes in his movies, yet still hold his own with the others, even though his mouth is not as fast on the draw as his gunslinger and gumshoe characters. Lyman arguably is the most authentic and level-headed of the bunch, taking life as it comes and enjoying it while he can, in “hail fellow well met” Reaganesque fashion.
Rounding out an impressively solid cast is young Davy Raphaely as the laconic, Manhattan Millennial, Trip. He has his mother’s charm and bluntness plus his father’s sangfroid casualness.
Along with sardonic Silda, the pair form a Greek chorus that serves as a reality check for the others. Aunt and nephew stay at just enough of a remove to comment on the proceedings without getting too wrapped up in — or warped by — the bitter brawling.
Credit cerebral director Dan Foster with shading the tragedy and comedy adroitly enough to remind us that, as with all things in life, none of these characters has a monopoly on the truth or right or wrong.
Trip puts it perfectly: “All what will have mattered when you take your last breath is how you loved.”
How you lived is left to others to decide.
Media and marketing specialist Bruce Apar, also known as Bruce The Blog, is Chief Content Officer of Pinpoint Marketing & Design, a Google Partner agency. He also owns APAR All-Media, a Hudson Valley marketing agency that works with The Winery at St. George, Yorktown Feast of San Gennaro, Jefferson Valley Mall, Yorktown Stage, Axial Theatre, Armonk Players and others. Follow him on Hudson Valley WXYZ on Facebook, Twitter & YouTube. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (914) 275-6887
Hudson Stage Presents
Other Desert Cities
by Jon Robin Baitz
Through Oct. 31
Armonk, New York 10504
For ticket information…