Other Desert Cities at Mark Taper Forum
by Scott Huver
This winter the achingly poignant and funny play Other Desert Cities—the Broadway sensation and finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for drama—comes home, in a sense, with its Los Angeles premiere at the Mark Taper Forum.
Acclaimed—and locally bred—playwright Jon Robin Baitz reunites with longtime director and friend Robert Egan (who helmed the playwright’s earlier local efforts, The Film Society and Ten Unknowns) to bring his tale of a family dissecting the political and interpersonal divides and hidden secrets that define their relationships on Christmas Eve in their posh Palm Springs compound to the Southern California environs that helped inform it. “The play is so steeped in the ethos of Southern California that to me, while not exactly being a homecoming, it’s in a way the perfect audience for the play,” says the author.
“In New York people loved it, but partially for its exoticism,” explains Baitz. “Here, the temperature is quite literally the same, and I think it means something in some way to do this play here. This is an expression of the West, and the end of the West in particular as an idea… It is sort of a play where people would come up to me afterward and say, ‘Oh, that’s my family, and that’s the division in my family.’”
Egan, for his part, is hoping to capture some of the fiery reality that New York director Joe Mantello’s production delivered—“a kind of searing truth in the acting. People really responded to the kind of brutal truth-telling and honesty on the stage”—as well as a radically reconceived set design he calls “slightly apocalyptic… this modernist bunker that these characters live in, a great metaphor not only to the geographical life of the play but also for an emotional and mental life that the country inhabits right now.”
After featuring various high-wattage leads on Broadway—including Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach, Thomas Sadoski, Rachel Griffiths, and Judith Light, who earned a Tony for her performance— the LA production snared a cast of uncommon caliber: Robert Foxworth, JoBeth Williams, Jeannie Berlin, Robin Weigert, and Michael Weston. “The great thing is that we’ve got some incredible heavyweights in there that have minds of their own,” says Egan. “That’s when it’s fun to be in rehearsals.”
“It feels like we know this man who was part of the Hollywood elite and who became involved in the political world,” says Foxworth of his character, the play’s father, Lyman Wyeth. “I wanted to sink my teeth into this guy who switched horses in the midst of his life and all the consequences of that, how it impacted both him and his family. “I felt this connection to this mother who basically had lost a child and had to keep this secret,” explains Williams. “Her daughter sees her as kind of a monster in a way, and you find out this whole other side to this woman. I just loved the quality of that character.”
“Every family has this mixture: Nobody makes us this crazy, and there’s nobody we love more,” adds Weigert, who plays Brooke Wyeth. “And where the love of the family fails—those are the challenges people face throughout their lives in terms of their relationships. It’s a redemptive journey, ultimately, and more profoundly, it has to do with some concept of the healing of America, which is its own kind of totally dysfunctional family right now.”
A long interpersonal history also informs the behind-the-scenes dynamic. “I am solely and only involved in this production because my relationship to not just Bob Egan, but to the Taper, which goes back to the mid-’80s—it’s my home theater,” says Baitz, recalling his days as an emerging playwright working with Egan. “Our first meeting on The Film Society was at his house, and I literally was so green that not only did I not have the script with me, I didn’t have a notebook or a pen. Robert just looked at me for a long moment, like, ‘Oh, we have to start from scratch with him.’ He went into his office and came out with a binder and a pad and a pencil—and I’ve never let go of that binder, pad, and pencil in the 25 years afterward.”
“Robbie’s always been very gifted, and I don’t know how,” reflects Egan. “He has an incredible gift with language that’s effortless at times. And I know hard work demands a lot of craft, but also he’s touched in a way: He really does care about probing and exploring this world we live in.” Other Desert Cities runs from November 28–January 6, 2013, at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA, 213-628-2772
photography by nathaniel wood; joan marcus (keach); photography by ryan miller/capture imaging (egan and baitz)