Four members of the wealthy Wyeth clan, wearing color-coordinated tennis outfits, take polite sips of water and swap brittle jokes about WMDs and the war on terror. Palm fronds, not snow, brush against the windows of their pristine living room. A small Christmas tree brims with cold white lights. The Unicorn Theatre's production of Other Desert Cities opens onto what feels like a Romney family Christmas card.
It's a chilly portrait, and it sets the right tone: Jon Robin Baitz's play is as much a Christmas story as Die Hard, and about as brutal.
The action unfolds in 2004 in the Palm Springs home of Polly and Lyman Wyeth, former Hollywood darlings and old-guard Reagan Republicans. Their liberal children — Brooke, a novelist, and Trip, a reality-TV producer — are home for the holidays, and Polly's sister, Silda (also a liberal, and a recovering alcoholic), has recently moved in. Initial attempts at civility and good cheer quickly devolve into partisan bickering, but the stakes are higher here than in your average political brawl. It's Christmas, after all, and Brooke (Cinnamon Schultz) has come bearing gifts: advance copies of her tell-all memoir, packed with secrets that could destroy the family.
Director Sidonie Garrett heads an accomplished team of veteran actors and designers to bring Baitz's battleground to life. Merle Moores is riveting as Polly, the ferocious matriarch, finding real tenderness and an unflappable pragmatism in a role that, in less capable hands, might conjure up Lucille Bluth. Jake Walker makes Trip's fiery Act 2 speeches sound both natural and inevitable, and Jan Rogge (as Silda) holds her own in a role that won Judith Light a Tony. Jim Korinke's congenial Lyman fights for composure and control through it all, and his struggle is heartbreaking.
Scenic designer Emily Swenson's smart take on the Lyman living room improves on the original Broadway design. Swenson's retro furnishings and flourishes (all in a palette of neutered beige) paint the elder Wyeths as elegant dinosaurs, insulated in a desert-regency habitat of wood paneling and frosted glass. The set is as functional as it is resonant: Wide angles open up playing areas for the actors and give the space an intimidating, cavernous feel.
Other technical elements are simple but skilled. Alex Perry's lighting design is restrained and effective, and costume designer Shannon Smith-Regnier appears to have raided Nancy Reagan's closet to achieve Polly's country-club style.
Baitz earned plenty of praise from New York critics for his compassionate characterizations of the elder Wyeths, but well-intentioned conservatives might not find much to applaud here. The couple contemplates ordering "Chink food," chalks up PC complaints to "liberal whining" and lumps the kids in with a "generation of hooligans." Baitz has some sharp insights on the fractured right wing, but bald lines such as "But now we are afraid of young people" have been stuffed a little too gleefully into his characters' mouths.
Other missteps in the script aren't as easy to ignore. Other Desert Cities seems to strive for the tragicomic dysfunction of August: Osage County, but Baitz's dogged employment of creaky plot devices and ham-fisted dialogue keep it from hitting that mark. Blunt, unforced Act 1 exposition gives way to Act 2's four-by-four monologue relay: easily won confessions that bloom into stilted keynote addresses about how we live and love.
But the Unicorn's cast, under Garrett's skillful direction, outperforms the script at every turn, tamping overwrought passages into a kind of colloquial wisdom. "Telling the truth is a very expensive hobby," Silda warns early on. This version of Other Desert Cities doesn't err in its attention to that high cost of art and artifice.