Baltimore is getting its first taste of Jon Robin Baitz's "Other Desert Cities," a buzz-creator off and on Broadway in 2011 that went on to become a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Fells Point Corner Theatre has jumped into this sizzling play with such finesse and nuance that it’s easy to forget the company's non-professional status.
This family drama is at once old-fashioned and new, with a sturdy structure that supports one confrontation and revelation after another, until the truth is as assertive as the sun in Palm Springs, where the play is set.
It's the early 2000s, when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were at full force. The Wyeths are a firmly Republican couple living in a kind of self-imposed exile. Lyman (Dave Gamble) is a former U.S. ambassador and movie star; Polly (Lynda McClary), had a career in Hollywood, too, before moving into government circles and perfecting the solid veneer of a political wife.
On Christmas Eve, they are joined by their daughter, Brooke (Laura Malkus), a writer in New York; their son Trip (David Shoemaker), a TV producer; and Polly's sister Silda (Linda Chambers).
A certain amount of tension is inevitable, in that Brooke and Silda tilt leftward politically and tend to say so. But that's a minor disturbance compared to what Brooke has brought with her — a soon-to-be-published book she has written about the family, especially the older brother she loved deeply. Decades before, he was part of a radical movement and a fatal bombing before reportedly killing himself.
There is enough pain, blame, cynicism and guilt to last until well into the New Year, but the action tautly concentrates on that single Dec. 24, when, after years of dodging or finessing their past, the Wyeths must confront the whys.
Baitz largely avoids the cliched and the predictable as he builds this tense, absorbing story. All the while, his extraordinary flair for dialogue makes each character register distinctly and persuasively.
Distinctly and persuasively also describes the way this production flows under the sensitive direction of Michael Byrne Zemarel, who coaxes natural, beautifully detailed performances from a well-matched cast.
Malkus brings Brooke's tension and vulnerability into sharp relief, and she strikes the emotional chords of the final scene with admirable skill. McClary parries terrifically when the accusations start to flow and makes Polly's bon mots land sturdily ("All the Brits are old, even the children").
Gamble doesn't sound entirely comfortable with Lyman's overwrought moments, but he reveals the character's heart in the second act quite affectingly.
As Trip (a name that suggests Sarah Palin's family), Shoemaker is adept at revealing the many ways the youngest son is cut from the same cloth as his parents, yet wryly detached. And Chambers shines as the well-worn, but still kicking, Silda, who considers Palm Springs a place "for mummies with tans" and knows a thing or two about skirting reality.
A nicely appointed set designed by Bush Greenbeck puts the finishing touch on a staging that does justice to an unusually potent play.