Before we get to Jon Robin Baitz's brilliantly written play, Joe Mantello's spot-on directing and John Lee Beatty's clever set, consider this cast: Stacy Keach, Stockard Channing, Rachel Griffiths, Judith Light and Thomas Sadoski.
All are known from television and each could handily win a Tony Award for their work in "Other Desert Cities" at the Booth Theatre.
Light, who was nominated for a Tony for her turn as the sharp Marie Lombardi in last season's "Lombardi" and is best known as Angela from "Who's the Boss?," is simply excellent. In this she plays a recovering drunk, Silda, to sister Polly (Channing).
Channing, best-known for her years as the first lady on "The West Wing," here plays a woman whose fortitude and sense of what is right has forged herself and her family into what she thinks everyone should be. Nancy Reagan was her mentor, and she moved easily in the circle of Palm Springs conservatives. She's controlled and controlling, strong, not obviously sympathetic yet she has kept her sister and her wayward daughter going.
Griffiths ("Six Feet Under, "Brothers & Sisters") is Brooke, the daughter who has not been back to California in six years. She had a breakdown, and is darkness and arch to her mother's forced lightness. Polly and Silda had written a series of gooey movies, from which they received no royalties. Keach's character, Lyman, had been a movie star who specialized in dying.
He then became a spokesman for various concerns, and when Reagan was in the White House he was an ambassador.
They are for the wars (name them, they are for them), against over- coddling, and clearly adore their daughter, a novelist. Their son, Trip, (Sadoski), is also home and it's Christmas Eve.
Never mind that Polly is Jewish, a bothersome fact Silda reminds her uber-Wasp sister about. Lyman just wants a peaceful holiday. He wants everyone to get along, but that is impossible.
There's tremendous tension lurking. Brooke, who wrote a novel then had a breakdown, has written a new book. Her parents initially believe it's a novel, but she explains the real reason she is there is to let them read her memoir about her older brother, Henry. He had fought with their parents, was drug-addled, left home, joined a radical group and was somehow involved in the bombing of a recruitment center. A veteran was killed in the bombing.
Henry then committed suicide. The parents' conservative Republican friends tried to drop them, but Polly soldiered on. One gets the feeling that Polly would soldier on through a nuclear attack, and still look as if she stepped out of the pages of a Saks catalog.
Griffiths, as the part calls for, looks like a pretty typical New York author, wearing dark colors, not bothering with makeup or fripperies. And Light, as her role calls for, looks like hell.
The brother, Trip, the adored baby of the family is a successful TV producer of a reality show featuring has-been celebrities serving on a jury, with a court presided over by a former judge. Like his father, he just wants a little peace.
But the women will not make any. The family is fractured and a bit stewed, except for Silda who cannot drink because she's on Antabuse. Brooke wants her parents' blessing to publish this book, and they cannot give it for so many reasons, the biggest of which must remain secret, as it's a pivotal plot point.
Lyman begs Brooke to just wait, to wait until they die and then she can write what she wants. He asks her to at least wait until after the holiday, but "The New Yorker" is going to run an excerpt and she can't wait.
It's the dredging up of the family history and the fear of putting this prominent family back in the news that has Polly furious. Both parents explain that if Brooke insists on going forward, it could well mean the end of their family. Even if Brooke doesn't publish, it would only be by a miracle or by Polly's sheer will that the family can go on.
Photo/Video credit: Joan Marcus