When playwright Jon Robin Baitz ventured into television to create "Brothers and Sisters," it was not a perfect melding of man and medium. While the series would go on to have a lengthy run on ABC, Baitz left very early in Season 1 over what were described at the time as "creative differences."
Translation: Baitz wanted to make one show; ABC wanted something different.
In response to that experience, Baitz wrote "Other Desert Cities," a family drama that was meant to reflect what "Brothers and Sisters" might have been. The Wyeth clan has reunited for Christmas and the good cheer of the season almost immediately dissolves as political differences, sharp words and even memories are tossed about as near-lethal weapons. Instead of holiday warm and fuzzy, "Other Desert Cities" draws more blood in a bit more than two hours than "Brothers and Sisters" did in five seasons.
This exercise in what one character calls "thermonuclear family war" makes its regional premiere in a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, where it will run through Sept. 15. And the reasons it was a Tony nominee and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama last year are on full display, thanks to a very sharp cast and strong direction from Richard Seer, resident director at San Diego's Old Globe.
Lyman and Polly Wyeth (James Sutorius and Kandis Chappell) are a special part of the 1 Percent, remnants of the Old Hollywood who cling to the vestiges of bygone days in the family's tastelessly imposing Palm Springs home and talk often about their good friends Ronnie and Nancy. Lyman is a former second-rank film star who, when the roles dried up, rose through the ranks of the Republican Party to become an ambassador in the Reagan administration. Polly is a former screenwriter moved into being a power-behind-the-scenes who has a wicked tongue that slices and dices with no hesitation.
Many of her barbs are aimed at her own children: Tripp (Rod Brogan), a reality TV producer who serves as referee in the family conflicts, and Brooke (Kate Turnball), a liberal writer suffering from depression and a broken marriage who lives as far from her parents as possible. Both are back for the holidays, along with Polly's sister and former writing partner Silda (Julia Brothers), who has just gotten out of rehab and is really missing her booze.
Looming over the gathering, though, is an unseen character: the Wyeths' oldest son, Henry, who committed suicide after being involved in a Weather Underground-style bombing. It is a part of their lives that Lyman and Polly try to keep carefully tucked away, but Brooke has come home with a special present for her parents that will make the raw memories of Henry and his death come surging back to the surface. It seems Brooke's new book is a memoir that focuses on Henry; to make matters worse, The New Yorker is about to publish an excerpt.
Merry Christmas, mom and dad.
Baitz throws a lot of ideas into his work, but manages to keep a clear focus on the family dynamic that is at the heart of the story. While there are plenty of laughs in the play, it grows progressively darker, and the final portion of the work is shattering. (It is also the play's one serious flaw, since there is no real setup for the big family secret that comes out at the end.)
The cast delivers both the high drama and Baitz's scintillating wit with brio. Chappell, who played Polly in a recent Old Globe production, is stunning in the part and manages to make her often unlikable character sympathetic. Sutorius, a veteran actor whose credits date back to the era of "Cannon" and "Kojak," is pitch-perfect as Lyman, who fiercely tries to keep his family together.
Turnbull is a force as Brooke, determined to tell the truth no matter how much it will hurt those she loves. Brogan slyly makes what he can out of a slightly underwritten Tripp. And as Silda, the always-watchable Brothers starts swiping whole scenes as soon as she walks on stage, although she fades a bit in Act 2, a problem with the play and not with the actress.
Seer keeps the work flowing so quickly and with such force that the evening zips by. He clearly understands what Baitz was aiming for in the work and never lets the snappy lines get in the way of the play's heart and soul.
Played out on a terrific set by Alexander Dodge, this production of "Other Desert Cities" is a superior night of theater, full of crackling humor, intelligence, rich emotion and, yes, even deep family love.
For Bay Area arts and entertainment news and more, follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.
By Jon Robin Baitz
Through: Sept. 15
Where: Mountain View
Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (one intermission)
Tickets: $37.50-$62.50, 650-463-1960,