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Stage Door: Other Desert Cities

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RACHEL GRIFFITHS
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Family dysfunction is always a rich source of drama. Just ask the Wyeths of Other Desert Cities, now at the Booth Theater. In this rich, Republican family, a Nancy-Reagan-like Polly (a superb Stockard Channing) and actor-turned-ambassador Lyman (Stacy Keach) spar with their two liberal children, TV producer Trip (Thomas Sadoski) and depressed daughter Brooke (Rachel Griffiths), and with Polly's sister Silda (Judith Light), the ultra-sarcastic hipster just out of rehab.

The show, which debuted at Lincoln Center in January, is a vodka-soaked, whip-smart look at familial secrets and betrayals. What makes it so compelling is its complexity -- sympathy abounds for all the characters.

When it moved to Broadway, it lost two key cast members, including the wonderful Linda Lavin as Silda, but it gained an archness and sympathy. Lavin was a spry soul who dashed off digs with élan. Light, by contrast, is mentally sharp but physically broken. When Polly muses that "families are terrorized by their weakest member," one glance at Silda confirms her thesis.

Playwright Jon Robin Baitz has set his drama in Palm Springs; the desert light is harsh and the confrontations are smoothly drawn, the insights brilliantly revealed. Having a successful off-Broadway run has helped, though Keach and Channing are in top form. She is both brittle and sympathetic, while he brings humanity to his GOP persona. It's easy to see why his lefty daughter is dad's girl.

Set during Christmas, the holiday is tinged with anger, humor and love. This family may be at odds politically, but their affection for each other runs deep. What kick-starts the action is Brooke's soon-to-be-published memoir about her brother Henry, a '70s political radical responsible for the death of a security guard.

The real issue is who owns the past -- and who defines it. Truth, as Oscar Wilde once observed, is never pure and rarely simple. Other Desert Cities has a Rashomon quality; it's all about perspective. The siblings are angry at their smug parents' rejection of Henry; the parents are horrified by their daughter's book. Publicizing their shame is the breaking point.

Baitz carefully nuances everyone's heartbreak; there are no winners in this domestic tragedy. Director Joe Mantello orchestrates the emotional onslaught with sensitivity and precision, aided by a first-rate cast that reminds us how messy, loving and surprising families can be. Griffiths has a tough role, and she renders it well, while Light's edgy performance is a perfect counterpoint to Channing's maniacal control. Other Desert Cities has the weight of an Arthur Miller play, complete with crackling humor and terrifying insight.