Christmas in California, as observed Nov. 3 at the Booth Theatre in Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities, is a pretty sun-baked, unseasonable affair, hardly noticeable save for a token tinseled tree in the stone-walled living room.
The Wyeth family unit that has reassembled for the holidays, only to just as quickly come apart, is discovered at dawn in their tennis gear fresh from a game on the court and looking forward to an unfussy Christmas Eve feeding at the country club.
Their tennis continues on a verbal level — brittle, back-and-forth banter that grows progressively bitter as the battle lines form between conservative parents and their liberal young. It seems that daughter Brooke (Rachel Griffiths) brought along a "little" present to unwrap for her parents, Lyman (Stacy Keach) and Polly (Stockard Channing), old-guard Hollywood-ites and Republicans once in good standing with the Reagan crowd. The gift ticks — or, more accurately, rattles like an old skeleton, which it indeed is: Brooke has written her way out of a seven-year depression with a memoir that focuses on her late brother, a war-protesting firebrand responsible for bombing a recruiting center and accidentally killing a Vietnam vet — an event that permanently scarred the clan and drove him to suicide.
Also present for the reading of the daughter's damning tell-all are her brother, Trip (Thomas Sadoski), a producer of courtroom reality TV, and Polly's sister and ex-scripting partner, Silda (Judith Light), fresh out of rehab and coiled to strike. It all makes for a hearty holiday mix, and rapt audiences have downed it in gulps ever since the play premiered in January at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse. That engagement was a fast and easy sell-out, and the Broadway transfer is bordering on the same, having done upward of 98 percent capacity during its three weeks of previews.
An unquestionable crowd-pleaser, it casts an attentive hush over the audience. In fact, it's possible to become so involved in this domestic turmoil you come out the other end. Indeed, Baitz has written a second act that completely upends Act One and alters your view of the Wyeths, harkening back to the glory days of the Hubbards and the Lomans — theatrical clans whose present is disfigured by sins of the past.
Sir Richard Eyre, in town to direct Kim Cattrall and Paul Gross through Broadway's eighth Private Lives, concurred and added some: "It is very much Lillian Hellman and Arthur Miller, and it touches O'Neill a lot. This is in a great American tradition, and it has made a great evening of theatre."
The play brought out some Yankee chauvinism in Jack O'Brien, who once directed Channing's Regina Hubbard Giddens in The Little Foxes. "I feel, as an American in this theatre community, proud and redeemed," he happily relayed. "I just came back from the British Isles, and they've got nothing this good over there."
In addition to Regina, there are in Polly strong echoes of the Fifth Avenue socialite that Channing played to Tony- and Oscar-nominated effect in Six Degrees of Separation. Here, her immaculate timing with lighter-than-air throwaways or overheated comebacks leaves the earth scorched either way, always landing well with the audience. "I like that the audience likes her so much," she admitted.
"And I do love it when the secret is revealed. You can feel the audience. They think they know this woman, and they realize they don't and they start getting upset."
Silver-haired Keach has a very affecting moment when the play peels back this last layer. Throughout, he has the look of a retired matinee idol who packed a rod on screen and went the way of NRA in retirement. His role, he said, vaguely suggests John Gavin, who, like Wyeth, was appointed ambassador by Reagan.
The buzz and buoyancy that come from a solid evening of the theatre was very much in evidence in the first-nighters, who fairly floated across 45th Street to the Marriott Marquis and then up five flights to the Broadway Ballroom for the after-party.
Leading the big parade were Renee Zellweger and Orlando Bloom of the movies, Anita Gillette, a late-arriving Sting and wife Trudie Styler, newly Tony-ed (for The Normal Heart) John Benjamin Hickey, newlyweds Mario Cantone and director-actor Jerry Dixon, Michael Urie of CSC's coming The Cherry Orchard, Chris Chalk of Broadway's last Fences, Olivia Munn, writer-director Moises Kaufman, Bravo's Andy Cohen, Tony winner Jonathan Pryce (who has a May date at BAM to do Pinter's The Caretaker with Alan Cox and Alex Hassell), married actors Ken Olin and Patricia Wettig (he now directs, and she now playwrites), Sonia Tayeh, costumer William Ivey Long, Ron Rifkin and wife Iva who just (like, last week) moved back to NYC after a decade on the other coast, Matthew Rauch, directors Michael Wilson (prepping a new all-star Broadway revival of The Best Man) and Mark Lamos (transplanting his Glimmerglass/New York City Opera production of L'Etoile in Norway), Christine Lahti and a still-camera-ready David Marshall Grant, who currently scripts TV's "Smash."
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In the eight or nine months it took Other Desert Cities to navigate 20 blocks downtown to Broadway, two of the show's five major players fell out to do other assignments — Linda Lavin as the angrily sober Silda and Elizabeth Marvel as the avenging memoirist. Miraculously, they've been seamlessly replaced by Judith Light and a Broadway-bowing Rachel Griffiths.
"When I was offered the role in August," recalled Griffiths, "I was both intimidated and exhilarated, and I started learning the play the next day and learning it and learning it and learning it, and I hired somebody for the first time in my life to run lines. I knew I had to at least have that down. I'd seen them do it, and it was so powerful. I thought it was the best play I'd seen in, like, a decade. It's everything you want."
Playing to like minds, she reasoned, could only be a pleasure. "I'm not saying that every Broadway house feels like this, but, when you're in a Broadway house in a play that people are so pent-up to see, there is anticipation. They bought their tickets the day it went on sale. They're so glad to be here. They know they're not going to be bored or tortured. It's infectious. It's 800 people. It's a great communal, ecclesiastical moment where all these people are so focused and so feeling and reuniting with feelings that they have not felt, quite often, for a very long time."
Light also wore the look of a lady who had just climbed Everest, having just successfully followed a much-praised performer in a very difficult role. (The cast wisely didn't apprise her of the night Lavin was in the audience so she was surprised when her predecessor showed up in her dressing room with beaucoup praise.) "Linda's extraordinary, and I respect her," said Light. "I never got to see her do this part because I was a little busy at the time [doing Lombardi]."
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
Spending last season in a Tony-nominated, alcoholic haze as Marie Lombardi wasn't as helpful as you might think. "They're entirely different. They're worlds apart. It has so little to do with alcohol and so much to do with what drives this character — the need to be seen and heard, the need to be necessary to people and to find a way to fit into a family when you know you experience yourself as an outsider." She credited her longtime manager, Herb Hamsher, for pushing her into the part. "I said, 'Oh, God, I'm really scared to do this,' and he said, 'Honey, there's only one answer, and it's yes.' I wouldn't say I was brave. I would say there was no other choice but to step into this because of all of the components. It was a gift to me."
Director Joe Mantello, who orchestrated the actors with considerable knowhow, was rather matter-of-fact about the spot-on recasting. "We got two wonderful actors to replace two other wonderful actors," he said simply. "Judith and I had done a reading of a Richard Greenberg play, and I thought she was spectacular, and so we asked her to do this just based on the reading that we'd done, and Rachel, of course, I knew from Robby's television show, 'Brothers & Sisters.'
"It's an interesting equation when you have three people who came from another production and then you have these two new people. One way or another, you have to somehow unify them into a whole. Some of it you let it happen naturally. You try to create an environment where everybody feels safe enough to experiment and get to know each other and learn about the play. I'm a great believer in trusting actors."
And what does Mantello feel about what this trust has wrought? He opted for the long view: "It makes me feel like we're all in the presence of a great American play. I hope it is one of those plays that continues to live through the years and be done by other wonderful actors and join the canon of great American plays."
Other Desert Cities marks Baitz's Broadway bow, and he took a deep and deserved one with his players on stage at the final curtain. "This is the first time in 26 years of writing plays that I can say with all certainty that I worked harder, had brilliant collaborators and, most importantly, didn't make any mistakes," he remarked. "I usually find the mistakes, and this time somehow all of the experience actually stuck. It's one of those once-in-a-lifetime situations where all aspects of it work, and they all come together. We did it right. I'm thrilled that the collaborative parts worked so well and that Joe's genius brought us to where we are."
For that matter, he also credited Mantello with bringing him to where he is: back to the theatre after a lucrative time in the Hollywood sun creating and writing the "Brothers & Sisters" TV series. "It took a lot to get back to being able to write plays. It was pretty blue after L.A., and I had to figure it out — how to do it again. Ironically, Joe and I started at the same time. I left the theatre for some years, but Joe brought me back. It's the most generous thing anybody has ever done to me."
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