BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
There’s a wonderful – and wonderfully appropriate – old-school Broadway style to “Other Desert Cities,” which opened Thursday at the Booth Theatre, where the play is likely to be a hot attraction for viewers seeking a satisfying story and blazing performances.
The “boulevard” quality to Jon Robin Baitz’s drama regarding a wealthy family struggling with a dark chapter from its past is effective because the Wyeths – at least its senior members – are rock-ribbed conservatives whose idea of enjoyable Broadway drama would likely be a well-made play like this one.
A jolly Christmas in 2004 with retired movie star-turned diplomat Lyman Wyeth (Stacy Keach) and his astringent wife Polly (Stockard Channing), chums of the old-guard Reagan crowd, soon turns anxious in their swank Sixties-style villa in Palm Springs.
Their brilliant, troubled daughter Brooke (Rachel Griffiths, in a fine Broadway debut) has arrived with a tell-all memoir relating an ugly scandal in their lives concerning her dead elder brother who was involved in a Viet Nam-era bombing incident. Publication is imminent.
The parents’ wrathful reaction to Brooke’s bitter tale comprises the rest of the two-act drama, which also embroils their younger son Trip (Thomas Sadoski) and Polly’s alcoholic sister Silda (Judith Light).
The playwright gives these sharply-drawn characters vivid talk and the ensemble makes the emotional most of it. Most of them performed in Lincoln Center Theater’s smashing off-Broadway premiere last winter and the natural give-and-take of their exchanges assume a palpable feeling of family.
The hard-faced Channing, whose iciness burns as Polly, and the Hemingway-esque Keach, whose hearty Lyman furiously melts down, are a perfectly-matched golden couple. His palms ever upwards in appeal or resignation, Sadoski reflects everyone’s pain as the conciliatory Trip.
The newcomers, interestingly enough, depict the troublemakers. Griffiths gives a deeply-felt rendering of Brooke that’s more sorrowful than Elizabeth Marvel’s angry original. Strung-out Silda was depicted for acidic humor by Linda Lavin, but here, Light’s austere portrayal of a miserable woman is pitifully bleak.