I went to the Quogue premiere of Jon Robin Baitz’s play Other Desert Cities last Thursday evening.
The Hampton Theatre Company, which makes its home at the historic Quogue Community Hall, doesn’t fool around. Its recent productions include Other People’s Money by Jerry Sterner, Deathtrap by Ira Levin, Desperate Affection by Bruce Graham and The Drawer Boy by Michael Healey. These are all plays that draw the best out of the actors. Other Desert Cities, which had its Broadway debut in 2011 to rave reviews, is no exception. Sometimes compared to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, it all takes place in a living room, this one, unlike Albee’s, in Palm Springs, California. The set is well-to-do and sleek, Palm Springs modern — with a stone fireplace, all glass windows and the high walls of a canyon, not far away outside. There are couches and chairs, a bar, and off in a corner a Christmas Tree. But the whole sense of the place is barrenness and isolation. A family drama will go on here. A drama that will pit the wills of five astonishingly different family members, all of whom have assembled because it is Christmas. It’s something they have to do once a year. And so they are.
This canyon home belongs to Polly and Lyman Wyeth, a couple in their late 60s or early 70s. She is a member of the Palm Springs Social Set. Her husband Lyman is a former movie actor turned politician who rose to become an ambassador during the reign of Ronald Reagan. They are both staunch Republicans. At their home on this day arrive their youngest son, now fully grown, named Trip, who is a television producer in Hollywood. He is whatever-it-takes practical and an easygoing kid, until things begin to unfold. Their other child arriving is their middle child, a daughter named Brooke. Brooke is a left wing liberal, a successful author, a fragile but determined figure who is underneath it all, still at war with her Reagan loving parents and all they stand for. She has brought a Christmas present. And this is the topic of the play.
The Christmas present is the manuscript of her latest book, a memoir, all about how her awful parents drove their oldest son, who is not present, to become a hippie left wing revolutionary whose bomb setting fire to a government facility resulted in the death of a janitor a full 30 years before. This son is not present because, leaving his filthy hippie clothes on the deck of the Puget Sound Ferry along with a note to his parents, he leaped overboard. The publicity about this was such a shock to the Wyeth family that it has not been talked about in all these years. An excerpt of Brooke’s new book, soon to be published, will appear in the New Yorker in 60 days. She has brought her manuscript to her parents to ask their “opinion.” They sure give it to her.
Also included at this house, the fifth person, is Polly Wyeth’s sister Silda. She’s also elderly, a drunk, hopeless and she hates her sister, who along with her ambassador husband, have taken her in.
The drama is gripping, twisting and gut wrenching. What a family.
The performance is worthy of Broadway. It’s rare to see community theatre performed at this level. Directed by Sarah Hunnewell, the plot, stage management and timing simply rips along. Diana Marbury, as Polly, gives an absolutely spectacular performance. She is a shaft of Republican steel, and gives no quarter. She is utterly believable, and she is terrifying.
Her husband, Lyman, played by Craig Braun, is equally Republican and equally in charge, but with a veneer of cordiality that, even at the astonishing end of the play, does not break, although after that, in a kind of “now the smoke clears” coda, apparently, offstage, does.
Ian Bell’s performance of Trip, the youngest son, is flawless, perfectly in character as he shifts from position to position in the play, often seemingly not sure he appreciates his new position swimming through uncharted waters, although he seems to be the only one of the group who has a full understanding of what is happening here. He also loves his family. And that doesn’t help.
Vay David, as drunken sister Silda, sleeps on a couch through much of the action. But when awake, she performs Silda with complexity, irony and a kind of theatrical revenge. She’s not the brightest of the group, however.
It would not be possible to say that anyone stole this show. It is an ensemble and has to remain in that framework, which it does. But the work of Morgan Vaughn, as Brooke Wyeth, shines above all. All these roles demand great flexibility, but the character of Brooke is something else entirely, a complex, driven, brilliant, overly sensitive, liberal, determined but angry young woman and Vaughn rises to this in a way that is unforgettable.
Other Desert Cities will be in performance at the Quogue Community Hall at 125 Jessup Avenue in Quogue on Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. The show runs through November 10. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $23 for seniors (except on Saturdays) and $10 for students. Call the box office at 866-811-4111 (OvationTix) or visit hamptontheatre.org.