OTHER DESERT CITIES Stacy Keach and Stockard Channing
Credit: Joan Marcus

Jon Robin Baitz (creator of ABC’s Brothers & Sisters) has said that he decided to open Other Desert Cities Off Broadway because he didn’t want the pressure of casting his play with marquee names — an enviable problem for most playwrights. Yet somehow this downsized production, snuggled into the 299-seat Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, still ends up with an excess of star power — not to be confused with A-list bluster — thanks to master-class performances by two of its leads.

As Polly and Lyman Wyeth, the patrician heads of a once-prominent Republican family twilighting in Palm Springs, Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach strut onto the stage, pour themselves a few stiff drinks, and proceed to methodically bring the house down with one knockout line after another. The characters’ sparring partners are — who else? — their family, reunited for a Christmas in California. There’s Polly’s yenta of a sister (a blissfully funny Linda Lavin), her even-tempered TV-producer son (Thomas Sadoski), and her emotionally wobbly daughter, Brooke (Elizabeth Marvel), who has just sold a family tell-all that dredges up the clan’s darkest secret. (No hints here; the striptease-slow revelation is too much fun to spoil.) Brooke says the book is her truth, that she might relapse into depression if it goes unpublished. Lyman, a Reagan-esque actor-turned-GOP chair, can’t stand to watch his family battle with itself. But Polly — a Nietzschean superwoman wrapped in lady-who-lunches casuals — views the book as a mortal threat to her reputation, if not her actual life, though she might not see a distinction between the two.

It quickly becomes apparent that these family members don’t have just one big secret: They’ve got dozens, fanned out in front of them like hands of cards ready to be played whenever they can wreak the most havoc. But what really sets Other Desert Cities apart from Other Family Plays is the strength and subtlety of the clan’s bond underneath their disagreements. Baitz’s crystalline writing — as directed by Joe Mantello (Wicked) — makes it clear that this isn’t a family that argues as blood sport; they only fight with such violence because they want so desperately to love one another. It’s that hesitation, the strategic pulling of the occasional punch, that gives the show its fascinating texture. And when that control vanishes for a moment, it wounds the play immeasurably. The second-act climax, in which the Wyeth children finally see the truth laid bare, is pockmarked with moments of actorly bombast that dull the thrill of all the shocking revelations. Too bad. A bit more restraint and Other Desert Cities might’ve had Broadway producers come begging. B+

(Tickets: or 400-432-7250)

Other Desert Cities
  • Stage