A Desert Storm:
Jon Robin Baitz’ Other Desert Cities (2011)
©2015 by Eileen Warburton
I wish you’d let me give you some concealer,
you have those dark circles under your eyes.
You just need some TVTouch, honey.
Ah, Hollywood. One of the strangest of all cities. An industry celebrating appearances and pretense, plonked into a desert and growing a town around its movie lots and sets of realistic street fronts with nothing behind them and no substantive interiors. In classic studio days, it marketed its false-front vision of a perfect America, noble, safe, ever neighborly and inclusive. Even our violence was always virtuous. Hollywood sold our gilt-plated myth of ourselves as though it was the solid gold truth. Was it truth or just a desert mirage?
The family in this play, the Wyeths, are all veterans of “the biz.” Lyman, the patriarch, was a rugged American celluloid hero, a just gunslinger, a virtuous gumshoe. He’s been the sincere-voiced spokesman for the California Wine Board. Polly Wyeth and her sister Silda were the successful writing duo behind the “Hillary” series, one of those so-innocent, fun-and-frolic beach blanket romantic flicks of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Son Trip is the successful producer of a very popular courtroom “reality” show, which is, as Polly puts it, “a fake TV courtroom with fake trials featuring roving litigants out to make a buck.” They accept their collusion with shared amused irony. Brooke, the prodigal daughter, was raised in this world of acceptable appearances and polished surfaces. She left for the East, to live and write in East Hampton (another outpost of Reality USA).
Aristocrats of the Ronnie and Nancy Reagan court, Lyman and Polly are active representatives of old-style Republican politics. President Reagan had even appointed Lyman as an Ambassador during his administration. While they attend the glittering fundraisers, entertain the aging GOP stars, and publically support the Iraq War, they seem to have missed that their party has moved into the land of neo-con ideologues, leaving their Reagan-era compatriots behind in a bubble of self-congratulation. As happened so often in the Vietnam era and ever since, divisive politics have divided the generations of this family—parents on one side, children and alcoholic aunt on the other. Politics—a basic world view—has messed with the dynamic of a family who, under it all, actually love one another profoundly. As Trip, the son who survives by cheery compromise, urges, “We talk politics . . . the whole day will be shot to shit . . . It will just dissolve into stiff upper-lipped thermonuclear family war.”
Those other wars in the desert, the Iraq War, the war in Afghanistan, all those “other desert cities,” becomes a metaphor for this family confrontation about violence, blame, and “the truth.”
Oddly, Lyman and Polly have left Hollywood for a luxurious retirement in Palm Springs, another peculiar desert city that is a kind of exile, despite its country club scene. As this play opens, Brooke, the long-absent child, is returning to visit her parents, who are preparing to feast in honor of having their family all together. But unlike the original parable of the prodigal, wherein the lost child humbles himself before his father and begs to be accepted home, Brooke, fragile from illness, troubled, and somewhat self-righteous, returns carrying an IED* in her suitcase.
She has brought the manuscript of her new book for her family to read before publication. It’s a memoir of life in the Wyeth family (names are named) and focuses on Brooke’s memories of the family’s terrible, tragic secret. The adored eldest brother, Henry, high on drugs and intergenerational contempt, had followed his anti-war left-wing politics into involvement with violent protestors. He was implicated in the bombing of a recruiting office in which someone died. His parents had shunned him and he was lost to them in a suicide that the Wyeths have been fleeing for decades. Brooke’s life has been laced with depressive misery ever since. Now, armed with “the truth” and bolstered by her bitter aunt Silda, Brooke confronts her family with the shame and rage and blame that’s about to be excerpted in The New Yorker. The usual dysfunctional family arguments ensue—with ‘compassion for the living’ being weighed in the balance against ‘artistic freedom of expression’ and the ‘truth.’ Yet, the most potent question is: what is “the Truth”? And what is really the moral way of living with it?
Ironically, Other Desert Cities is probably the first major play to rise from the ashes of a television show. Its author, playwright and television writer Jon Robin Baitz (b. 1961), was the creator and executive producer of Brothers and Sisters, which ran between 2006 and 2011. Baitz had envisioned the show as “an entertaining meditation on class and position in America . . . an evolving matriarchy after the men had ruined everything . . . about aging and the reality of it.” It involved a successful California family with hidden, destructive secrets who were divided by their politics. After a nasty, combative year in which ABC executives sensationalized the series into a Dallas-style clan drama with little politics and many happy, boozy endings, Baitz left in a fury (fired? walked out?) and didn’t go quietly (interviews, blog postings, lots of public rage). He holed up in his cottage in East Hampton and nursed his “existential crisis” for over a year. (“I was hostile. I was paranoid.”) Slowly, he wrote it off and, in the process, admits to “growing up.”
The play, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, reflects his journey, as it is a coming “to terms with all the things you don’t know and the assumptions you’ve made . . . [it’s] about the emergence of humility in human nature . . . and how little one knows.” Like the Wyeths, Baitz’ family was uprooted from their Los Angeles life when Baitz’ father, an executive with Carnation International, had to move, first, to Brazil, under military dictatorship, then to South Africa, where Baitz became politicized living in an apartheid world. He returned and embarked on a career of writing off-Broadway plays about dysfunctional families coming unglued (eg. The Substance of Fire, 1991; A Fair Country, 1996), while he also wrote for smart political television shows like The West Wing and Alias. As he wrote Other Desert Cities, Baitz began to struggle with “the hubris in the act of writing about people who are actually living beings.” He worked through the play on his own “forgiveness” and titled it, originally, Love and Mercy.
Which is, of course, the title of Brooke Wyeth’s memoir.
* an IED is an Improvised Explosive Device
The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.