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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