Put Stockard Channing and Linda Lavin on stage, together, and watch the magic. They play sisters on opposite sides, both political and familial, in the smartly staged Other Desert Cities. With the pointed glance, a snappy aside or a raised finger, these two command attention. Now at the Mitzi Newhouse, Jon Robin Baitz's latest familial drama manages to be funny, cutting and illuminating. Secrets, lies and betrayals play out against a backdrop of Californian affluence and restraint. This is rich dysfunction -- zingers are delivered with a whiskey chaser.
The Wyeth family has come together on Christmas Eve, though the celebrations are muted by the news that daughter Brooke (Elizabeth Marvel) has written a memoir tackling her Reaganesque parents' worst nightmare. She is reviving the suicide of older brother Henry and his violent anti-war activity during the Vietnam era. Her mother Polly (a perfect Stockard Channing) is a former screenwriter married to Lyman (Stacy Keach) an actor-turned-GOP politician.
By contrast, her liberal sister Silda (a delightful Linda Lavin), enjoys reminding Polly that she loves her -- despite the fact she's changed identities. "News flash, sweetie: You're not a Texan, you're a Jew!" In fact, the nature of memory is on trial here. It's no mistake that seemingly laid-back son Trip (Thomas Sadoski) produces a wacky reality courtroom TV show.
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 refusing to tolerate dissent; the parents are horrified their daughter blames them for Henry's death. They are at a point of no return.
Baitz carefully nuances everyone's heartbreak; there are no winners in this war. Director Joe Mantello orchestrates the emotional onslaught with sensitivity and precision, aided by a remarkable cast that reminds us how messy, loving and surprising families can be. Other Desert Cities has the weight of an Arthur Miller play, complete with crackling humor and terrific insight.