The California legacy of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan included a moneyed class of staunch GOP regulars who ran Southern California from their estates in the posh neighborhoods of Beverley Hills, etc. When evolving political power marginalized them, many said “screw it” and moved to Palm Springs, etc.
There they remain as they dwindle: heirs of inherited wealth and an aging meritocracy of developers, industrialists and old Hollywood tycoons, squeezed out by a new generation of same, no less ruthless but more comfortable with a relaxed lifestyle.
One family of such folk is the subject of Jon Robin Baitz’ interesting new play at the Globe, Other Desert Cities. They are named Wyeth (presumably no relation to the family of WASP painters)and they are deployed for Christmas Eve, 2004, just when politics had gotten really nasty.
The old man is a retired actor, apparently low A-List, who served a turn for President Reagan as ambassador to somewhere. His wife, we’ll come back to shortly. The son is a successful producer of television filler who’s quite comfortable in the new Hollywood. The daughter has chosen an author’s life back east and produced one successful novel before her mental breakdown a few years previous.
The scene is the parents’ home, excruciatingly real in Alexander Dodge’s expansive set, just the sort of stunning, elegant, sterile discomfort seen in slick magazine photos of the Palm Springs lifestyle.
The family also includes the mother’s dilapidated sister, an alcoholic loser kept dry and short of bag-lady status only by grudging sibling hospitality. They’re all about to leave for the seasonal spread at the country club when the daughter drops a bomb.
She’s brought along the manuscript of her new book and, well, it’s not a novel after all, but a memoir. About the family. Especially about her older brother, who dropped a real bomb some years back, destroying a recruiting station in Long Beach, the Vietnam veteran janitor and, for a time, the family’s reputation. He left his clothes and a suicide note on the deck of a Seattle ferry.
A defining moment in family history, to say the least. It pretty well wrecked the daughter, who now lives on pills, holds her rage always ready and dresses, somebody note, “like a refugee from a Kabul library.”
She has sold the latest book. In fact, it will be excerpted in the New Yorker sometime in February. She hasn’t bothered to ask her parents about the brother’s endgame. All she wants is their blessing.
And this, the entire audience has begun to understand, is something she WILL NOT get from her mother.
Polly Wyeth is a Texas Jew who came to Hollywood as a screenwriter and stayed as a power matron, reborn into the Rodeo Drive aristocracy. She says things like, “I hate being fair!” and her rigid blonde hairdo looks like it could wound on contact. After the unpleasantness with her son, she endured the snubs for a time, then convened a luncheon, at which she made Nancy Reagan, Betsy Bloomingdale and Mrs. Walter Annenberg weep. Thereafter, things returned to normal.
Kandis Chappell, long one of the Globe’s most distinguished actresses, plays this Polly with icy disdain, yes, but also a stern yearning for order translated by rigid neck and shoulders. Chappell’s Polly will never be seen to stagger. Chaos might then yawn.
The others don’t have a chance and they know it. Robert Foxworth as the old actor is safe enough; Part of Polly’s code is that he be comfortable and respected. Foxworth, a most polished technical actor, defines this mediocre guy by his awkward moments, the crises he must face without a script. His pats of reassurance are touching.
As the surviving son, Andy Bean gets all of the most awkward scenes. He’s often pinned between two violently conflicting views and he’s the only one actually commanded by Polly to speak an opinion. All this from people who never have nor never will watch any of his work. Bean excels at drifting in and out of caring and he rolls a mean doobie.
Polly’s sister and former writing partner is a mess. Evolution shoved her through the hippie life, L.A. version, and she came out a dowdy, shuffling liberal, sniffing dreamily the drinks she pours for others, not above whining. Robin Pearson Rose plays her like another dark secret in Polly’s closet.
Dana Green plays the author daughter with standard anguish and leftover rebellion. Judging from the excerpts read, she has spared no compassion for the parents in the matter of the dead son. They shall be made to suffer, Green underlines rather too viciously and too often.
There are revelations in Act II, of which you will learn nothing here, and a brief retrospect set recently. The first act is quite funny, with much mileage squeezed out of assorted California and show business stereotypes, but the second act is solemn indeed. Baitz spares us the Hollywood creative anguish moments but he can’t resist the Borscht Belt.
In fact, though the play is smoothly staged, director Richard Seer has failed to make sufficient room for this dichotomy. Much juicy dialogue, including perhaps some useful exposition, is drowned out by solid laughter. A more careful allowance for such interruptions, and some better enunciation for that matter, would have been appropriate.
Charlotte Devaux’s costumes are right out of the correct catalogues and thrift shops but York Kennedy’s sumptuous lighting supposes a later sunset on those distant mountains that the season suggests.
Would it be ungallant to suggest that a glance around the Globe auditorium might discover certain individuals who would be right at home on stage? I don’t think so, because Baitz shows me an understanding heart for victims of generational crunch. All power to him and to those who gallantly persevere.