Politics, family, Christmas.
For many, this would be a toxic mix. For the Wyeths of Palm Springs there's an added complication: Daughter Brooke has written a memoir that will shine new light on an old family scandal.
That scandal involves Brooke's deceased brother Henry, who looms large over the tempestuous holiday gathering at the center of "Other Desert Cities," which opened Mad Cow Theatre's 17th season Friday night. For Mad Cow, director Aradhana Tiwari has assembled a top-notch cast who give their characters more flesh-and-blood reality than playwright Jon Robin Baitz's script suggests.
Patriarch Lyman is a former movie star turned GOP politician a la Ronald Reagan — who's a family friend. Mother Polly is a nag. Her sister Silda is staying with the family as she recovers from alcoholism. Brooke suffers from depression and has had a nervous breakdown. The youngest Wyatt, Trip, produces a brainless TV show and worries he might be addicted to sex.
If this sounds like the sort of people who populate a television soap, well, bear in mind that Baitz created the long-running serial "Brothers and Sisters."
Tiwari has pulled off a double success: She makes the audience care about these folks, so unlikeable on the surface, and she creates crackling bonds among them as their emotions fray.
The actors also help pull the audience's sympathies this way and that. Marty Stonerock's Polly may be overbearing, but her nearly constant movement indicates a fear of letting the cracks show in her picture-perfect façade. Despite Joe Candelora's affability, every now and again a haunted look flits across his face as he hovers near the flickering woodstove, part of William Elliott's beautiful set.
Ginger Lee McDermott projects strong flickers of pain among Brooke's bluster. Her face shows the audience why writing this hurtful book is critical for her own wellbeing. Matthew Natale Rush perfectly plays the "baby of the family" dynamic, punctuating Trip's blunt talk with a knowing grin because he's sure he can get away with his frankness. And Marion Marsh provides needed comic relief as Silda without sliding into caricature.
The performances more than compensate for the occasional sloppiness in Baitz's writing. One example: Critical, conservative Polly — who idolizes Nancy "Just Say No" Reagan — walks through a room that must be reeking of marijuana and doesn't mention it. And Baitz's surprise ending not only is unsurprising, it's too pat and means the fundamental conflict of the play goes unresolved.
Still, it's a joy to watch these fine actors make the most of lines such as "This water needs vodka for flavor" and "Sarcasm is the purview of teenagers and homosexuals," while showing us that laughter can indeed mask pain.
'Other Desert Cities'
• What: A Mad Cow Theatre production of a Jon Robin Baitz play
• Length: 2:10, including intermission
• Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 54 W. Church St., Orlando
• When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and two Mondays, Oct. 7 and Oct. 21; 2:30 p.m. Sundays; through Oct. 27
• Tickets: $28.25 and higher; $15 on Mondays
• Call: 407-297-8788
• Online: Madcowtheatre.comCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun