December 28, 2011

Family Feud

In Other Desert Cities, New York-based author Brooke Wyeth (Rachel Griffiths) has returned to her parents' home in Palm Springs, California to celebrate Christmas 2004. She has a close relationship with her father Lyman (Stacy Keach) and a contentious one with her iron-willed mother Polly (Stockard Channing). Her brother Trip (Matthew Risch) is also home for the holidays. The family gathering is completed by her alcoholic aunt Silda (Judith Light), who has been taken in by her parents while she is in recovery.

Jon Robin Baitz's play starts off pleasantly enough, with Lyman reminiscing about his acting career; Trip discussing his latest TV reality show production; Polly talking about the country club, and their glory days with the Republican Party. But as if family reunions weren't difficult enough, Brooke divulges that her latest book is actually a memoir, dwelling on a tragic family event that will open up old wounds. Secrets will be revealed, and you will find yourself constantly shifting loyalties as layers of each character get peeled away. Should the memoir be published or not? Will the truth set them free? Or just wreak more havoc on their lives?

The remarkable cast give natural, funny, honest portrayals of their characters. Ms. Light is a scene-stealing comic genius. Ms. Channing is exceptional as the tough-as-nails matriarch who has tried her darnedest to maintain the family reputation, and keep everybody together. I daresay the two veteran actresses might get Tony nominations for this. Mr. Keach gives a moving performance as the father caught between supporting his daughter's latest endeavor, and keeping painful secrets from coming out. Mr. Risch's poignant monologue will move you to tears. He basically sums up how he ends up somehow achieving normalcy despite the dysfunction in their family. Ms. Griffiths' depressive Brooke is frail and uneven. Despite the heavy subject matter, there are enough snappy zingers and one-liners to keep you from despairing over their plight. There's even a Lord of the Rings reference!

By the end of the show, you would have laughed, cried, gotten angry, and feel emotionally spent. I suppose that's how it is in any family. Sometimes, all you need is a good old-fashioned throw down with your loved ones to achieve understanding, healing, and catharsis.


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